The TRA survey makes use of data on wealth produced by the Fiscal administration in order to tax wealth at death. These sources record every French death occurring over two centuries, providing comprehensive and continuous information of great value.
The Fiscal administration goes back to the Ancien Regime. But, it was reformed in the year VII (1799) and reorganized so as to conform to the key principle of universal taxation promoted by the French Revolution. Consequently, the sources it produces are a sure way to reach everyone. In fact, the year VII law stipulates that the Fiscal administration must be notified of every death.
To use these different sources efficiently and switch quickly from one to another, a synthetic directory of all sources was developed: the Table of Deceased and Missing Individuals (Table de successions et absences, TSA). These tables have two purposes: they provide a record of all deceased individuals and an accurate description of the situation of each one.
The year VII law codifies the recording of deceased persons’ estates. It states that the Fiscal administration must be notified of every death. In practice, mayors must give the lists of deaths in their municipality to this administration every quarter. Each office of the administration must ensure that, within its jurisdiction, all estates are subject to a proper declaration and that these declarations are reliable. The office is therefore required to dispose of adequate means of verification and hence to produce its own sources of information. But this confronts them with a real danger: that of being submerged by the rising tide of the information they collect. To avoid this risk they need to be able to navigate between all these different sources and quickly switch from one to another. This is why the TSA were created.
These tables remained relatively unchanged over time as they are the linchpin of a complex machinery. From the early 19th century to the end of the inter-war period they identify alphabetically and chronologically all people who die or leave an asset in a given office. In each office the same information is always recorded: date of death, residence and, in some cases, place of death, occupation, age, marital status at death, name of spouse, along with cases of destitution and ownership (or not) of an estate. Finally, they record the estate value, distinguishing personal wealth and property. More precisely, this information is included in the tables only until 1865. Thereafter, it gradually ceases to be recorded. To get accurate information on wealth after that date, one has to refer to wealth statements themselves, which describe in detail the property of the deceased. These statements, in chronological order, are recorded in the RMD.
Estate declarations (RMD)
At the same time, the Fiscal administration records the precise description of assets in the Registers of Transfers by Death (Registre des mutations par décès, RMD). They contain information required to tax the heirs of the deceased. The heirs (or their agent) must declare all properties left by the deceased and their value. Whenever there is any wealth, the TSA refers to the assets listed in the RMD. Part of the work of the Fiscal administration is to separate personal property from marital property of both spouses on the basis of the marriage contract.
Data collected by the Fiscal administration have changed. Initially, personal wealth was evaluated in the municipality of residence while property was recorded where it was located. Indeed, it was impossible for the administration to aggregate all the scattered information it held on a given individual. In the cases where the deceased owned property in more than one office, the administration opened a file in each of them, sometimes connecting them by a referral system. It was not until 1901 that the shift towards progressive taxation –which implies considering total net wealth– made it necessary to aggregate all local information on a single individual.
Both before and after the 1901 reform, the Fiscal administration frequently opened multiple files for a single person. In fact, the number of files per person rose steadily throughout the period. This trend applies to all individuals, whether or not they leave assets at death, and reflects the administration’s concern to obtain a more accurate knowledge of asset transfers. To this end, it developed a first series of tools that enable it to classify, store and retrieve a growing body of information organized around the same model. Thus information could easily be moved from one office to another. A second and more ambitious series of extensions involved the creation -in 1865- of a general directory (Répertoire general) that records all wealth transactions realized by individuals over their entire life. The main goal was to get a more comprehensive view of wealth at death by observing the complete life cycle of wealth. As a consequence, a better knowledge of wealth transfers led to an increase in the number of records per individual. The same phenomenon occurred with the 1901 reform which also increased the number of files opened for a given individual. On the one hand, the Fiscal administration’s increasing requirements for accuracy made incomplete or inaccurate statements more frequent while, on the other hand, a growing number of organizations –such as banks or insurance companies– were called upon to provide information. But this information was collected gradually, often making it necessary for the administration to open a corrective file.