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Going Paperless - Be Careful


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My wife brought up a good point that I would have completely overlooked - and I think people should keep in mind:

The legal system (at least in the U.S.) has not kept up with technology. These companies that want you to go to paperless statements are essentially getting around a legal paper trail. What is the legal position of delivering an electronic letter or bill with false information designed to obtain money from you illegally? What is the legal position of delivering that same false information via the USPS? We all know what the answer to the second question is - it's called mail fraud - and it's a felony. If you get into some sort of legal problem with, say, a home owner's association - or even the cable company - a wise piece of advice would be to not only scan, but also hang on the the physical bill as well as the envelope it came in - because it has the post office's mark showing the date of mailing, which can be a vital piece of information in a legal case.

To me, this seems horrific - hanging on to slips of paper - but I would compromise and hang on to them for a year, then chuck it.

I'm no lawyer, and maybe recent changes to the law have made this concern of mine irrelevant, but I've been acting as though our legal system is still stuck in the 1980s

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  • Level 5*

Interesting point - the legal system in the UK is largely stuck back in the days when originals and 'certified copies' (when someone official has seen the original and made a copy of it for an extortionate fee) are the only acceptable proof of things like ownership and contract obligations. There are, and always will be, things that you need to keep like Share Certificates / Marriage Deeds / Birth Certificates / Passports. There are things you need to hang on to for a while - like purchase receipts, expenses documentation, user guides for stuff you actually own...

I have scanned envelopes before now - but only when the postmark is different from the date on the letter.

I've got a few real document stores running alongside Evernote - it's a given that everything gets scanned on the way in...

  1. A Permanent File for the Birth Certificates and Car Ownership things I have to keep. That's in one of those concertina "home filing" packages in a drawer.
  2. A monthly rolling file for things like routine receipts, household bills and other stuff I'll probably junk (the receipts, not the stuff) in 12 months. Everything I spend in January 2012 goes into my January file, shortly after everything that was in there from 2011 gets pruned down to the big ticket items where guarantees may have expired, but when I sell these things it's nice to know I bought them 20 years ago.. The paper I want to keep gets upgraded to the Permanent File. I'll find the original scans and update them appropriately.
  3. A separate file (or files by project) for expenses-in-progress where the originals (in the UK at least) will have to be sent in with the claim. I scan the completed claim form (obviously...) from which I can find all the supporting receipts if I need to.
  4. A gradually reducing number of paper files where I keep stuff I'm told I need to have on hand. I'm weeding down that category by loudly and repeatedly complaining when anyone sticks me with actual paper, and demanding electronic copies of everything in future. I explain Evernote and my paper-free resolution for <insert current year here> at length, and inform people unless they want their paper back I recycle after scanning. Occasionally I get told sanctimoniously that "for legal reasons" something has be be in (rw) writing. Those items I do keep.
  5. A library for files, reports and published books and documents that I can't find online, and haven't sacrificed to the scanner. Yet.

Everything is held together by Evernote, even for the physical items - I look up a document, check when it was received and (unless there's a note to the contrary in the Evernote) I'll look in that month's envelope / file folder to locate the original.

Your personal process will have to be a function of the job you do, the legal risks you face, and how much space (and patience) you have for finding and filing bits of paper. If it all goes wrong you will still have your Evernote copy of the paperwork - and if necessary I'm sure there are things a smart lawyer can do to require someone to disclose whether or not they were in fact the authors of a specific document.

Generally I can only urge you not to be too .. retentive .. about this - in the last 16 months I've gone a long way to converting files from a 6 foot tall by 18-20 feet length library shelving into Evernote. (There's still a couple of feet to go!) That represents files from pretty much all my career, various companies and numerous projects. It was all important at the time, but as I go through the pages to decide what's to be scanned and what can be recycled, the split is probably 20/80 in favour of the waste heap, and that's only because if it takes me longer than a few seconds to read a page it will go into the scanner to be weeded later. I kept an amazing amount of dross, under the impression that it would be of inestimable value to future ages. Most of the time I was way wrong!

My current real document stores by the way now occupy one small filing box and the aformentioned concertina folder. The books are all over the place, but I'll get around to them, you see if I don't.


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  • Level 5*

I understand your concerns, but I don't share them, and I think they are based on outdated / incorrect views of the legal system in the US. I have never heard of a case in which someone lost because they had electronic instead of physical records. In addition, it seems very unlikely that major companies from banks to local service providers would offer electronic account access and electronic bill records that would not be considered admissible in court. Even electronic communications like emails and facebook postings are regularly accepted in court cases.

IRS says it is OK to go paperless




Electronic copies are fine for legal cases


Many courts are going paperless


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FWIW, I checked with my insurance company & the IRS. Both accept scans of receipts. I figure if it's good enough for them, it should be good enough for everyone else. If I anticipated I may have a legal issue, I may keep certain originals such as USPS return receipts. But after scanning, I'd probably shred any letters/envelopes.

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One other thing ... most envelopes that come to me have no postmark. Either the USPS has stopped postmarking or at least they no longer ink the machine :)

The rule in US law is something call "best evidence". IOW, if you have a copy AND the original, only the original can be submitted as evidence. The converse is that if you no longer have the original, a copy will be accepted.

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