How to View Tax Returns Available for Public Inspection

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Personal tax returns, as confidential documents, are exempt from Freedom of Information laws that allow public inspection of records. However, tax returns for every type of tax-exempt organization except government agencies and churches, known as 990s, are not confidential records and can be accessed online, according to the Internal Revenue Service. The key things to note, when taking a quick view of the document, are how much money the entity brought in, how much it spent, how much it paid key employees and the total value of its assets.

Step 1

Confirm the name of the agency or institution whose tax return you are seeking. Visit their website and make sure that the entity is not listed under another name. For example, "Bigsville Hospital" might file its 990 under the name "Bigsville Health Systems Inc." Access Guidestar, FoundationCenter or another website that allows visitors to access 990 records free of charge. Search by general terms, if possible, in case the entity's filing title is slightly different than its location name. Just entering "Bigsville," for example, should bring up "Bigsville Health Systems," the non-profit company that runs Bigsville Hospital.

Step 2

Review Part I, "Revenues, Expenses and Changes in Net Assets or Fund Balances," to get a snapshot of the entity's financial situation. Revenues include the amount of money brought in from sales of products or services, rent or sale of assets, and interest earned on bank accounts or investments. Expenses are the costs for running the company. Section I also notes changes in the total value of the entity's property from the previous year.

Step 3

Check Part II, "Statement of Functional Expenses," for a detailed breakdown of the costs for running the entity. This includes the total for employee salaries, building operation and maintenance costs, supplies, equipments and various expenses such as travel, conferences or accounting and legal services.

Step 4

See Part III, "Statement of Program Service Accomplishments," to get statistics on how many people were served by the entity for the year. It might also include a figure for the number of people served each day. A hospital, for example, would indicate how many people it treated last year. This section is usually fairly general in scope, but some institutions break down figures for each of the services they offer.

Step 5

Skip to "Schedule A," Parts I, IIA and IIB to see how much key employees were paid for the reporting year. This would include upper management, such as CEOs and CFOs, human resource directors and department heads. Section IIB lists the highest-paid independent contractors hired by the entity.


  • The figures noted in the 990 reports are usually at least two years old before they become available on Guidestar. As of January 2010, reports for 2008 were recently released.


  • There are many other sections in the 990, ranging from detailed lobbying expenses, an explanation of the entity's tax-exempt status, to a disclosure of the filer's independent financial statements. The balance sheet section notes financial changes between the beginning of the reporting year and the end of it.



About the Author

Aaron Gifford is based in New York. He has been on staff at the "Syracuse Post-Standard," the "Watertown Daily Times" and the "Oneida Daily Dispatch." He's also written for "Long Island Newsday," "Empire State Report" magazine and "In Good Health." He has been writing professionally since 1995. Gifford holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the University at Buffalo.

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