How Long Should You Retain Records?

We have been asked many times how long businesses should retain their records, whether in email, files or other venues. The simple answer to the question is that there isn’t “an” answer. Instead, there are a number of issues to consider in determining how long you should retain your records:

  • What does your legal counsel advise?
  • What have court decisions in your industry revealed?
  • What is your organization’s tolerance for risk?
  • What are the consequences of disposing of records too quickly versus keeping them for too long?
  • What do government and industry regulations require as minimum retention periods?

To address the last question, we are assembling a database of regulations focused on data retention. We published the first edition in December with 421 regulations, but will be publishing the next edition in March with approximately 1,000.

Here’s a sample of the types of data retention regulations that exist today:

  • Manufacturers and importers of chemicals must retain documents related to notification of risk, contact information about entities to whom chemicals are distributed, production volumes and other information for three to five years (40 CFR 82.13).
  • Entities that operate as swap data depositories must retain records related to swaps or related cash or forward transactions for a period of five years, the first two years in an easily accessible place, but records of oral communications may be kept for only one year (17 CFR 1.31).
  • Underground mine operators must retain certifications for safety equipment for one year (30 CFR 57.4201).
  • Anyone who imports nonroad and stationary engines must retain documents supporting the information required in EPA Declaration Form 3520-21 for five years (19 CFR 12.74).
  • Entities that operate air curtain incinerators that burn yard waste must retain records about all opacity tests for five years (40 CFR 60.1455).
  • Manufacturers of heavy-duty vehicles and engines must retain records estimating how their fleets will comply with GHG emissions standards; estimated vehicle configuration, test group and fleet production volumes; expected emissions and fuel consumption test group results and fleet average performance; and other information (49 CFR 535.8).
  • The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) requires entities subject to various sections of the Income Tax Act, the Employment Insurance Act and the Canada Pension Plan to retain for two to 10 years any books and records that will permit the CRA to determine taxation, the qualification of registered charities, permit the verification of various types of donations, etc. (CRA Information Circular IC78-10R5).

There are two key takeaways from this:

  1. There is no such thing as an “unregulated” industry or company in the context of data retention: every business in every industry must retain records for some length of time.
  2. Data retention is not easy, particularly in the context of being able to find archived records, disposing of them properly, and migrating them to new archives and other information platforms. The technology used to archive, search for and migrate records is critical.

For more information on our Data Retention Requirements Guide, click here.

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