Tax season is hardly when one expects to uncover some long-lost family history — or a new appreciation for the value of original source documents — but this year that’s exactly what happened to me.

While helping my dad with his taxes, I volunteered to tackle the mountain of financial documents he’d been holding onto for years, deciding which he should keep and which were ticketed for the shredder. As I sifted through his old bank statements, an aged document in a plastic sleeve caught my eye. I opened it up to find it was a life insurance policy my paternal grandfather took out in 1918, around the time he came to America.

From Russia, With Questions

According to family lore, my grandfather immigrated to the United States from Russia to escape the czar’s army, and while I was fortunate enough to know him before he died, some important details of his life have remained shrouded in mystery for me and others in my extended family, including my grandfather’s true age when he died.

As I examined the life insurance policy — which, incidentally, provided $1,000 worth of coverage for an annual premium of a whopping $27.85 — key pieces of information jumped off the page. I’d always known my grandfather changed his last name when he came to America, but I was never quite sure what the original last name was or how to spell it. Here, on the life insurance policy, was the answer: Zalutzky.

I also knew he’d changed the name to Zoll at some point and the policy had that answer as well. On the first page’s upper left-hand corner, a typed note indicated that in 1923, the insured party filed an affidavit of his name change from Meyer Zalutzky to Meyer Zoll. It wasn’t concrete proof – after all, my grandfather might have changed his name a few years earlier and perhaps simply didn’t get around to updating his insurance policy until then. But it was a pretty good indication of when he likely made the change that brought about my last name.

Also on the front page was the name of the policy’s beneficiary, my grandfather’s father, Morris Zalutzky, a name I’d heard once or twice but had by then forgotten.

The Importance of Searching Offline

At the bottom of the document was perhaps the most important piece of information. It listed my grandfather’s age at the time he took out the policy as 33 years old. That meant he was born in either 1884 or 1885. My grandfather died in 1979 and his true age was a matter of conjecture even before then. We knew he was in his 90s, but no one was quite sure exactly how old he lived to be. Based on what the document said, he would have been between 93 and 95 when he died — a commercial database search later confirmed he was 93.

As an investigator, finding that old insurance policy was an unexpected lesson in the value of original source documents and, most importantly, that even today there’s plenty of valuable information to be found by searching offline. In our daily lives we are so accustomed to searching for information on our phones or computers we mistakenly assume all information lives there.

Whether it’s a formal investigation of a subject on behalf of a client, or an informal dive into one’s own family history, it often pays to look at documents that can only be found in a library, an archive or even tucked away in the back of a desk drawer.