As a business owner and/or company director, you have certain obligations around the proper collation and retention of company accounting records. Whilst HMRC and Companies House have changed their stance on digital copies compared to paper versions, the requirement to retain copies of key financial documentation remains.
There was a time whereby the traditional year ends (March and December) meant that we would see an influx of archive boxes with reams of paperwork in them in the months following. Some bigger firms of accountants would have had entire departments tasked with sorting and filing these papers in preparation for an accountant to begin the year end process. Some even had vans that they would use to go round and collect the paperwork from clients!
Six Plus One Years
The basic rule as required by law, for the retention of documents is based on the principal of 6 +1 years. This means six full financial years plus the current year. For safety, most people will simply work to a rule of seven years, making sure they have at least seven full years at any one time.
However, whilst this is the minimum period for retention there is no maximum and you are also required to keep records beyond the 6+1 rule if there are transactions that span multiple years and may therefore be required to show the entire lifetime of the transaction.
In terms of what you need to keep, the general rule is anything connected to the financial running of your business, showing monies being paid out, monies received or anything with a tax implication -either paid by you or collected by you. Typically, this means:
- Purchase Invoices
- Sales Invoices
- Dividend certificates
- Bank statements
- Stock ledger
Again, there is no maximum extent to this and so best practice is to retain it all – best to have too much than not enough – especially when you could face a fine of £3,000 of being disqualified as a director for a failure to comply.
Going digital and cloud accounting
The most significant change to the policy around document retention came as a direct result of the move to electronic invoicing. When accounting systems could first produce digital invoices and email them, HMRC was initially hesitant around accepting them as legitimate copies. There were concerns around the chain of delivery and the ability to go in and alter the details. So even after the systems could offer efficiencies, HMRC still preferred printed and posted paper copies.
As more companies moved from paper based accounting to software, the more comfortable HMRC became with accepting digital documents, although initially only remittances and invoices. Fast forward to the present day and HMRC’s own plans for Making Tax Digital shows how far things have progressed in around 15 years. There is now a greater push to move to a digital format as these transactions are deemed to be easier to track and provide real time reporting. Today, the same rules around retention periods remain, but HMRC is even happy with photos of receipts being kept for expenses and most accounting systems provide you with the opportunity to append images or documents to individual transactions, creating a digital archive.