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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

March 07, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Pre-1962 Social Security Search

Q: I just read your helpful article on Social Security records. It is my impression that the computerized record began in 1962. One thing I wonder is whether it is possible to get an Social Security number application for someone who died before 1962. Do those records still exist and are copies available? -- Sharen

A: The Social Security Master Death File, from which we get the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), began in 1962. There are a few pre-1962 entries in the SSDI, but most of us have been disappointed when searching the SSDI for someone who died before 1962. This does not mean, though, that there are not other avenues to getting the SS-5 form.

It is important to understand that while there are records before 1962, Social Security is very much a twentieth century record. Social Security was not begun until the 1930s, with the first benefits being paid out in the latter 1930s. So if your ancestor died before 1935, then the social security records are not where you will find information about the person.

If he died from 1937 to 1961, then your first step would be to see if you can get a copy of his or her death certificate. Many death certificates have a place for the social security number. This would allow you to contact the Social Security Administration and request the SS-5 form to learn the social security number.

With the change in pricing that took effect last year, the difference between the cost when you know the social security number and when you don't is minimal. If you cannot find the social security number, you can still request a copy of the SS-5 form. You will need to supply the Social Security Administration with as much identifying information as you have. If you do have a death certificate for the individual, then you will want to make sure that you send a copy of it with your request to facilitate the processing of the request.

Searching for Erik Frey

Q: I am trying to locate my husband's grandfather before his mother passes on. My mother-in-law has cancer and her wish is to locate her father. I have been reading about various ways to locate him but he didn't leave much of a paper trail. I bought a book on how to locate anyone and it said to contact the social security death file. I sent $45.00 to this company to find what state he lived in when he drew his social security. The zip code will tell me what state right? In your article, you said that you could apply for the social security death file for only $27.00. I have this man's social security number and I did apply for his application. I got it back and learned that my husband's grandfather applied for the application in Arizona. My husband applied for his death certificate and found out that Arizona has no death record of him. The man we are looking for is Erik Algot Frey. He was born July 10, 1904 and died April 12th, 1991. Now I am wondering if his date of death is correct.-- Susan

A: There is often a confusion when looking at the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), which is available online, in determining where a person died. In the case of Erik Algot Frey, a search of the SSDI did indicate that the issuing state for his Social Security number was Arizona. However, in the SSDI, there was nothing listed for last known residence or last payment location. As a result, while he spent some time in Arizona, it is possible that he did not die there.

In fact, using the Family Finder Search at, I discovered a couple of other places on the Internet where the name "Erik Frey" shows up. According to Sylvia Frey Chapin in her Genforum post, Father New England, Erik Algot Frey was born 10 Jul 1904 in Sweden and he died 12 Apr 1991 in New Jersey. I would encourage you to visit the GenForum site and then click on Sylvia's name to get her e-mail address. You have probably found a cousin.

Linking More Info Needed

Q: My dad and I are on a quest to learn where we came from. He never knew his grandparents and his dad left when he was 16. Now he is in his 40s and I'm 21 and we can't seem to find any family background. If I were to give you some information, could you help me search for my family name? I have information on my dad's parents and grandparents' names but that's all. Can you help? -- Christopher

A: Names are a good start, but now you need to see what dates may be known. I suspect your father knows more than even he suspects. You will want to sit down with him and begin talking to him about things like his parents' birthdays. He may at first say he doesn't know when they were born, but you may find that the more you talk about the actual birthday celebrations or other momentous events, he may be able to come up with ages for his parents.

Also, if he hasn't done so already, you will want to have him get his birth certificate. This should give him some more information about his parents, including their ages at the time of his birth and their places of birth. Getting a birth certificate usually requires contacting the county or state where the event took place.

While more and more information is being published online, there is still a lot of research that requires us to contact civil authorities or to visit repositories such as libraries, archives and courthouses. It is possible that once you get a few more records, you will be able to make better progress on the Internet. There really is no rhyme or reason to what is available online and through the various databases available from and others. People I expect to find information on are often the ones I can't find online, while those I didn't think I would find are not only available but have extremely lengthy pedigrees.

You may want to take a little time and check out the various online learning options here at There are some great columns and interactive free online lessons available at the Learning Center.

Contacting Courthouses

Q: Does Family Tree Maker generate letters to county courthouses requesting copies of birth and death certificates? I have clicked on a place that is supposed to do that, but can't get anywhere. Can you guide me step by step on how to do that. I want to request vital statistic record from Kanawha County, West Virginia. -- Rhojean

A: Yes, the last few versions of Family Tree Maker have offered a "form" letter that you can copy into any word processing program and replace the requested information with what is pertinent to your research request.

If you have the most recent version, you will find the form letter by clicking the "Family Finder Center" (the button that looks like a puzzle piece). You can also access it by clicking on the "View" menu, then placing your cursor on the "FamilyFinder" menu option, and finally clicking on "FamilyFinder Center." Once in there, you will want to click on the "How to Get Started" link in the list on the right. The Genealogy How-To Guide will open and you will want to scroll down to the bottom, where you will find "Form Letters and Other Aids." Click on the book button to the left of this. Then click on the form letters in the language needed, in your case those in English.

To request a vital record, you will want to select the "Form Letter in English for requesting genealogical information from an institution." This will open the form letter that you will need to copy and paste to your word processing program.

In general, when requesting information you want to stick to the immediate information you need. Include your address, the date of the letter, the address of the repository you are requesting the information from, and then the information you are looking for. It is a good idea to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) to facilitate the response and then a check for whatever fees are involved in getting the record. Here is a sample letter that I have found useful.

    Dear Sir or Madam,

    I am writing to request a copy of the death certificate for my great grandfather. Below is the pertinent information for the requested record:

    Name: Oliver Marion Standerfer
    Death Date: 6 June 1931
    Death Place: Sullivan, Moultrie, Illinois
    Name of Spouse: Sarah Adaline Standerfer

    I am including a check in the amount $8.00 to cover the cost. Please let me know if this is not enough. I am also including an SASE for your convenience.

    Thank you for your time.

I have always received responses with this type of a letter. I have supplied them with the necessary identifying information, kept the letter to the point, and enclosed the funds and an SASE.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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