Doing the taxes is not pleasant. But reviewing our ancestors’ tax returns is a most pleasant activity. Tax returns are yet another way to add facts and depth to your family history. Let’s take a look at 15 tidbits of information that can be found on your ancestors’ tax returns.
We’ll start with the basics found on most tax returns. (tidbits 1-7)
- Address of taxpayers and their dependents
- Who lived with them
- Birth years of dependents
- Social security numbers
In the example below, I have drawn a red line around these items found my parents’ 1961 Virginia State tax return. The green lines are around the location for the social security numbers. (This return is a handwritten copy of the one my parents sent so my mother didn’t bother filling in the social security numbers on this particular copy.)
Next you can find handwriting samples and signatures of the taxpayers (tidbits 8 and 9). Years ago, tax returns were completed by hand either by the taxpayer, a friend or family member of the taxpayer, or a paid preparer. If the taxpayer completed the return, you have a wonderful example of his or her handwriting and signature. If someone else completed the return, it still might contain the taxpayer’s signature on the kept copy.
Below is my father’s 1955 District of Columbia tax return. My father rarely wrote anything because my mother had beautiful handwriting, and he believed his handwriting was awful. Examples of his handwriting are cherished by my sister and me since they are so rare. (I blocked out part of his signature in this example.)
You can discover details about your ancestors’ everyday lives by looking at their itemized deductions. Itemized deductions include taxes paid, charities supported, and miscellaneous deductions. (tidbits 10-12)
I knew my parents had a cocker spaniel before I was born. Now I know when from looking at their 1957 Virginia tax return which shows them paying for a dog tag. See the view of the return below. On that same return, I discovered my father belonged to a union.
On their 1980 Federal Schedule A, I see what charities my parents supported. This information gives insight into what and who they valued.
Tidbit # 13 is personal property tax. Some states collect or previously collected personal property tax from their residents. Some returns have detailed lists of what the taxpayer owned, as well, since household goods like furniture were often subject to personal property taxes. The 1958 Virginia personal property return below shows what car my parents owned in that year.
Addresses for people other than the taxpayer may be found on a tax return. That’s tidbit #14. For example, one of my cousins lived with our family for a few years. My parents claimed him as a dependent even though both of his parents were alive. One of the forms included with my parents’ 1963 Federal return gave the addresses of my cousin’s parents.
The final tidbit is costs of doctors, dentists, health insurance, and more. My mom was super-organized. I found a handwritten list of medical expenses for each year. The cost of medical care was shockingly low compared to now. Below is a list from 1962 that shows the portion my parents paid for doctors, dentists, and insurance premiums. This amount was entered on the Schedule A of their Federal tax return for that year.
Tax returns are an often overlooked source for genealogists, but they are helpful for filling in the years between census records and for going beyond names and dates. I hope this list of tidbits will help you glean valuable information from any ancestors’ tax returns you find.
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