How long do you hang on to your canceled checks? Do you have boxes of checks stashed away on the chance you might need one of them some day?

Don't clutter up your living space with unneeded papers. You can get rid of most of the checks you've been saving without any risk.

Checks for payments on bank credit cards, department store accounts and utility bills should be kept only until the payment shows up on the next statement. Once you know the payment has been properly credited to your account, there isn't any reason to keep the check.

By now you should have gotten rid of the greater part of your hoard of checks. But what should you keep? And for how long?

In the first place, you should hang on to every check that supports a deduction on your tax return: charitable contributions, loan interest, medical expenses, support payments to or on behalf of a dependent, etc. But don't keep these in a check file; instead, put them in a folder or envelope along with the tax return on which the particular deduction had been taken.

If your bank is one of those that doesn't return checks, keep track of tax-associated payments. If you have a record of check numbers, dates, amounts and payees, you'll be able to get copies from the bank later if they're needed for an audit.

Unless there is a question of fraud, the IRS can only go back three years to question your return. So you can now get rid of all the papers supporting your tax returns for all the years through 1976.

I know -- three years goes back only to 1978. But for no logical reason I can give you, I keep the fourth year, too. If you don't want to share this personal quirk with me, dump your 1977 papers.

Keep the tax returns themselves indefinitely. They sometimes turn out to be useful for reference and may be particularly helpful to the executor of your estate. Checks relating to the purchase or maintenance of a capital asset -- your home or other real estate, stocks, bonds and other securities, for example -- should be kept for three years after submission of the tax return on which you account for final disposition of the asset.

In the case of your residence, if you have replaced it with another and deferred part or all of the tax liability for capital gain, "final disposition" means sale of the last home and accounting for all of the accumulated gain.

The situations I've talked about should cover just about all the checks you are apt to write. If you have some special circumstance you're not sure of, you can keep either the canceled check or a memo record. With the information mentioned earlier, your bank or savings institution can provide a copy of the check (both sides) should the need for it arise later.

Q: Your column on "Keeping More of Your Estate for Daughter" June 29 was very interesting. How does the annual gift tax exclusion fit in the personal income of the donor?

A: Gifts, whether within the annual $3,000 exclusion or exceeding it, don't figure in the income tax return at all. There is no deduction on the part of the donor, and the gift is not reportable as income by the person receiving it.

Of course, if the gift is one of property -- shares of stock, for instance -- then any income generated by the property after the date of the gift is income to the recipient, not the donor.