FAQ: Is it possible to keep records too long?

Accounting Book

Page from Denis Nealon's account book from the Deseronto Archives.

This weekend I was at a basketball game with a friend and, as you might expect, our conversation turned to records management.  My friend works for the accounting department of another state agency, and he said he knows you can’t destroy records before their retention period, but he was wondering if there is anything wrong with keeping a record longer than its retention period.  I gave him my usual response: that there are no direct legal repercussions, but you do leave yourself open to some potential legal risk.  I gave the hypothetical example of getting a public information request for old records that had been destroyed, but the person requesting the records finding out that there are other similar records from the same time period that had not yet been destroyed and claiming that you had targeted their records specifically.  I mentioned that this is only a hypothetical example, and that I had never really heard of a problem caused by keeping records too long.

But my hypothetical story reminded him of an actual event that had happened at his job.  His agency’s policy is to refuse to pay a bill that has come in so late that that month’s financial records had already been destroyed.  This made sense to me, because there would be no way to prove that the bill had not already been paid.  One day at work he received a bill that was seven years old.  Like most others, his agency has a retention period of FE+3 for accounts payable records, but his agency was behind on destruction and the records for that month had not been destroyed yet.There was no record of payment, so he paid the bill.  Some time later he got another bill from the same vendor, this time only four years old.  But by now his agency was more caught up on destruction and the records for that month had been destroyed.  He notified the vendor that the records for that month had been destroyed, so his agency would not be paying the bill.  He then spent the next few weeks at work dreading the angry phone call he was sure to receive.  Phrases like “Well you paid it last time!” and “This one’s not even that old!” kept running through his head.  Fortunately the angry call never came, but isn’t it worth saving yourself and your coworkers weeks of worry by just following your retention periods consistently?

So that was my first concrete example of how keeping records too long has caused an actual person an actual problem.  But we’d love to hear from our readers:  has keeping a record too long ever caused you a problem at work?

One thought on “FAQ: Is it possible to keep records too long?

  1. As long as you are following the retention schedules scrupulously there should not be a problem. Exceptions to the retention schedules should be very rare occurances. The position we had always taken is that while nothing specifically precludes retaining records beyond the retention schedule, it is probably not prudent and should be justified in writing. As you state that your friend is from “…another state agency” the justification should probably be signed by a section head. That justification should probably be routed by the entity’s legal compliance/destruction authority. If the client department provides justification, a copy of the justification is filed along with the records to answer any challenges which may arise due to exceeding the retention schedule. People that really need to retain the records have no problem with writing the justification, people that can’t articulate the need beyond “just in case” and seperation anxiety will usually back away from the requirement and let destruction proceed.

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