Federal Records Management

Preparing Disposition Instructions


After the records have been evaluated for disposition, the next step is to write recommended cutoffs, retention periods, and other disposition instructions for all records, along with necessary instructions for nonrecord materials.

Although instructions for cutting off records are included in this step, such instructions should be implemented as soon as possible, even if the records are not yet scheduled. This prompt action will avoid unnecessary delays in applying a specific retention period once the agency has received disposition authority from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Central to preparing disposition instructions is the need to propose specific retention periods for the records that have been inventoried and evaluated. Records with potentially permanent value deserve special attention.

Schedule instructions should be clear, especially those on the final disposition of records. The timing of destruction or transfer to the National Archives must not be left to chance or be subject to possible misinterpretation.

If NARA has yet not granted disposition authority, the agency may include the series or system in its comprehensive agency schedule, but only with this disposition statement: "Do not destroy. Disposition authorization pending NARA's approval."

Instructions for Permanent Records

If records are proposed as permanent, the disposition instructions need to include these elements, to be entered in separate fields in ERA:

The word "Permanent." Use the word "permanent" to designate record series or systems that may have sufficient value to warrant archival preservation by the National Archives. Alternate words, such as "indefinite" or "retain," should not be used. Lengthy retention periods are not equivalent to "permanent."

Cutoff instructions.

Instructions for transferring the records to a records center, if applicable. The timing should be based on the length of time after the cutoff, although it may be expressed either as "Transfer ___ years after cutoff" or "Transfer when ___ years old." The particular record center should be specified if it is an exception to the general rule.

Instructions for transferring the records to the National Archives, including both timing (required) and blocking (if applicable). The timing should be based on the length of time after the cutoff: "Transfer ___ years after cutoff.” The timing of the transfer should normally be within 30 years for paper and electronic records, and within 5-10 years for audiovisual or microform records. Blocking means the chronological grouping of records consisting of one or more segments of cutoff records that belong to the same series and are dealt with as a unit for purposes of their efficient transfer (e.g., transfer in 5-year blocks). If permanent records are to be transferred to a National Archives regional archives, the name of that facility should be specified whenever possible.

Examples of disposition instructions for records proposed as permanent:

  • Permanent. Cut off file at end of fiscal year. Transfer to records center 5 years after cutoff. Transfer to the National Archives 15 years after cutoff.
  • Permanent. Cut off file at end of calendar year. Transfer to the National Archives in 5-year blocks 20 years after cutoff of the most recent records.
  • Permanent. Cut off file at end of fiscal year. Transfer to the National Archives in 5-year blocks 20 years after cutoff of the most recent records.
  • Permanent. Record dates: 1984-87. 6 tapes. Transfer to the National Archives immediately. [This is an example for a nonrecurring, or closed, series.]

Instructions for Temporary Records

All records not identified as permanent should be scheduled for disposal after a specific retention period. This step is unnecessary if the General Records Schedules already include an appropriate retention period for the records. Recommended retention periods for temporary records are to be based on realistic and informed assessments of their administrative, legal, and fiscal values.

If records are proposed for destruction, the disposition instructions should contain the term "destroy / delete". The wording "dispose of" should be avoided because it does not necessarily mean destruction.

Retention periods for temporary records may be expressed in two ways:

  • A fixed period after records in the series or system are created (normally a fixed period after their regular cutoff). For example, the phrase "destroy when 2 years old" provides continuing authority to destroy records in a given series 2 years after their creation (normally 2 years after their regular cutoff).
  • A fixed period after a predictable event (normally a fixed period after the systematic cutoff following that event). The wording in this case depends on the kind of action involved. Note the following examples:
    • "After completion" (as of a study, project, audit).
    • "After sale or transfer" (as of personal or real property).
    • "After publication" (as of monthly reports).
    • "After superseded" (as of an administrative directive).
    • "After revision or cancellation" (as of a form).
    • "After acceptance or rejection" (as of an application).
    • "After audit" (as of accounts).
    • "After settlement" (as of accounts or a claim).
    • "After acceptance" (as of a bid or a recommendation).
    • "After end of fiscal year" (as of budget reports).
    • "After termination" (as of a contract).
    • "After transfer" (as of an employee).
    • "After conversion to paper or microfilm" (as of information contained in an office automation system).
    • Other specific wording depends on the nature of the action involved. Some retention periods are based on the likelihood that two different future events may affect a series of records. For example:
    • "Destroy when property is sold or vacated, whichever is later."
    • "Destroy when superseded by revised plan or when building is sold, whichever is sooner."

Every effort should be made, however, to establish retention periods that are fixed rather than contingent, due to increased difficulty in implementation.

The wording of retention periods should be realistic. For example, records should not be scheduled for destruction on termination of the office or program. More often offices or programs are reorganized, or they are incorporated into a second office, or they liquidate so slowly that the precise time of termination becomes a complex legal matter. Instead a different retention approach, such as a fixed time period, should be used.

Likewise, temporary records should not normally be scheduled for destruction "when no longer needed." Since the application of this retention period would vary from person to person, the agency would in effect lose management control of such records, and the agency may inadvertently destroy records that are still needed.

Examples of disposition instructions for temporary records:

  • Destroy/Delete 3 years after cutoff.
  • Retire to records center 3 years after cutoff, destroy/delete 7 years after cutoff.

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