Professional organizers often help clients organize and manage personal and financial documentation. Many times the documentation is old, outdated, and no longer needed. The ideal solution would be that the client wants to dispose of these documents. Unfortunately, the reality is, clients will turn to the organizer for guidance and direction.
What are the rules for getting rid of paperwork? Is the organizer putting herself/himself in jeopardy for suggesting what can go and what should stay? What are the legal ramifications and how does an organizer handle purging documents?
In our litigious culture, an organizer is wise to know these answers. I work with professional organizers every day to help determine the answers to these and other questions they have about helping clients purge documents.
So, what are the rules when it comes to purging documents? Well, unfortunately there is no simple answer to that question. I frequently tell organizers that they need to answer that question with “it depends.” It really does depend on what type of document you are looking at.
Some documents you never purge. These documents are considered “official” documents and to replace them takes lots of additional paperwork, contacting government agencies, usually a fee, and a wait time of up to a year in some cases. Examples would be birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, immigration papers, military papers, and the like.
This category will also include documents that need to be updated on a regular basis, but the old documents can be purged out of the current system. This would include financial plans, household inventory, certification paperwork, warranty documents, wills, advanced directives, living wills, and other non-financial documents.
All other paperwork will fall into one of three categories. The first will usually document some sort of asset they own (like checking accounts, boats and cars, or investments). The second will document some sort of liability they owe (like car loans, mortgages, and taxes), and the third type will be insurance documents.
Professional organizers need to be very careful with helping a client purge documents. You never want to be held responsible for actually disposing of the files to be purged. Once your client makes the decision to get rid of old paperwork, involve her/him in the process. Have them sit with you and shred the documents together. Make sure they are aware of what is being shredded.
If the amount is too great to sit and shred by hand, then put it in black plastic bags and take it to someone who will shred it for them. You should not be responsible for transporting the bags to be shredded. Don’t put yourself in the position of having the client come back to you claiming you destroyed something they wanted to keep.
To protect yourself and your business, always consider carrying E&O insurance (errors and omission). Make sure the client knows, via your agreement, what you will, and what you will not do for them.
Linda Donegan began her career as a CPA with Price Waterhouse Coopers and worked on some of the firm’s highly visible clients providing audit and problem solving services. After several life altering events she realized how important personal and financial documentation is, not only for ourselves, but for those that we love. For the past 22 years, Linda has accumulated a vast amount of knowledge regarding personal and financial paperwork. She has worked with individuals and companies to educate and provide resources for managing this critical part of our lives. Linda created The Family DocuMap as a guide to organize, manage and maintain personal paperwork. She resides in Oldsmar, Florida with her husband of 30 years, Dennis.