Record Retention Periods
This post is the first substantive post in the Legal and Ethics FAQ Blog Series. As mentioned in that post, AAMFT’s legal and ethics consultation service frequently receives questions about record keeping issues. The service receives a range of questions related to records and record keeping, but one of the most frequently asked questions is:
Some members are surprised to learn that AAMFT does not set record retention periods. Rather, MFTs should look to their local jurisdictions to determine record retention periods. In addition, MFTs can take guidance from Standard 2.5 in the AAMFT Code of Ethics. Standard 2.5 states that MFTs store, safeguard, and dispose of client records in ways that maintain confidentiality and in accord with applicable laws and professional standards.
If your jurisdiction does not specify a record retention period, there are a few other places you can look for guidance. If you work in an agency setting you would want to consult agency policies and procedures on this issue. If you are on an insurance panel, the third-party payor may have specific retention requirements. You can also look to local law governing the retention of records for similar professions. For example, in some cases taking guidance from the record retention requirements set forth by hospitals may be helpful (hospitals tend to have the longest record retention period). You can also take guidance from the statutes of limitations for common claims that can be brought against mental health providers (e.g. breach of contract, malpractice, licensing board complaint). It may also be helpful to consult with colleagues about their record retention policies.
Some recommend retaining records indefinitely since the record would serve as the primary source of defense against allegations of wrongdoing. The record retention period set by any applicable law should be viewed as the minimum length of time to retain records. In addition to considering statutes of limitations for certain types of claims that could be brought against a provider, other considerations include the likelihood that the records would be needed in the future, whether the client was a minor at the time of service, and so on.
For those jurisdictions that do set minimum record retention periods, it is common for there to be separate requirements that may require a provider to retain a minor’s record for a certain amount of time after the minor reaches the age of majority.
To find out what the requirements are in your jurisdiction, you can contact your licensing board or other applicable regulatory body, or a local attorney.