For many people born in the nineteenth century before formal birth registration was required, Social Security records can provide valuable vital facts about birthplace and date, death date, or parents' names. They can also give you clues to where a person lived or even worked at a given time, where they resided when they first applied for their Social Security card, where they last resided, and the residential area of the person who received benefits upon their death.
History of Social Security
Let's begin with a short history lesson about Social Security. You'll need to remember a few important dates as you seek clues to your ancestors in the Social Security records.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935. By June 30, 1937, the Social Security Board had established field offices that assigned Social Security numbers until 1972. Since 1972, all Social Security numbers have been issued centrally from Baltimore.
Do you know where your grandfather worked when he first applied for a Social Security card? Up until 1947, Social Security card applications included the applicant's employer and the employer's address.
Someone you are seeking may not have applied for a Social Security number until it was needed for Medicare benefits, beginning in 1965 for those age 65 or older.
What about military records? In 1967, the Department of Defense began using Social Security numbers instead of military service numbers to identify Armed Forces personnel. Be sure to check discharge papers lying around the house or recorded at the county courthouse to see if the service number is actually a Social Security number.
Not just U.S. citizens receive Social Security numbers. In 1972 the law required the Social Security Administration (SSA) to issue numbers to any legally admitted alien upon entry, and to obtain evidence of age and citizenship or alien status and identity.
Do you have a railroad worker in your family tree? Up until 1963, railroad employees were assigned Social Security numbers in a series from 700-728.
Since 1989, an SSA program has enabled parents to automatically obtain a Social Security number for a newborn infant when the birth is registered with the state, a sure indicator of place of birth.
What's in a Number?
The first three digits of a Social Security number, known as the area number, are assigned by geographical region. Visit the SSA's web site for a list of area numbers and corresponding states. Prior to 1972, cards were issued in local Social Security offices around the country, and the area number represented the state in which the card was issued. Since 1972, when the SSA began assigning numbers and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, the area number is assigned based on the zip code in the mailing address provided on the application for the original Social Security card. A word of warning: the applicant's mailing address may not be the same as his or her place of residence. Therefore, the area number does not necessarily represent the applicant's state of residence either prior to 1972, or since. The area numbering scheme was developed in 1936, before computers, to make it easier for the SSA to store the applications in Baltimore files that were organized by regions and alphabetically. Originally, it was intended for SSA internal use and convenience, and was not intended for anything more. However, it's a good clue for the family sleuth!
Where Can I Find a Social Security Number?
A variety of documents may reveal a person's Social Security number.
- Look carefully at the death certificate if you have it.
- Military records since 1967 use the person's Social Security number as an identifier.
- Check with the funeral home that handled arrangements --they may have a record of the deceased's Social Security number.
- A life insurance policy or death claim may list it.
- Some states use the Social Security number as a driver's license number.
- Look around the house--if the deceased or their minor children received any kind of Social Security benefits, you may have papers listing the Social Security number in a filebox in your home.
- And there's always the Social Security Death Master File (SSDMF), also known as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).
The Social Security Death Index
Since 1962, the SSA has used an electronic system, or computer, to maintain records of approximately 60 million deaths that have been reported to them. This database is in tape format, which is not searchable by the public. However, the U.S. Department of Commerce does sell these reels of magnetic tape to genealogical services that reformat the information on their own searchable computer databases or publish it on cd-roms. All so-called Social Security Death Index information comes from the same source -- the Social Security Administration's records. These include Social Security number, last name and first name, date of death and date of birth, zip code of last residence, and zip code of lump sum payment recipient.
As with any electronic data, problems exist in the original database, and these errors flow through to all versions of the Social Security Death Index. For example, the SSA database allows only twelve letters for last name and nine letters for first name, with all other letters being truncated, or left off. Also, data entry errors do occur. If you can't find someone by first and last name and birth date, try searching by first name only and as much other information as you can to narrow the search. Be sure to visit Kathleen Hinckley's Family Detective web site. She keeps a regularly-updated list of errors that people find in the SSDI, and you can search for the name you couldn't find in the SSDI.
In addition to data entry errors, be aware that the death date may contain month and year only, especially before 1988. Another issue is that the zip code information may lead you in the wrong direction. Zip codes were not used until 1963, and the location assigned to a zip code is based on U.S. Postal Service assignment of localities to a given zip code. This may not be the town where the person actually lived, nor where final benefits were sent. For example, a zip code of 63017 results in two Missouri town names-Chesterfield, and Town and Country.Do not be fooled into thinking the zip code or locality of last residence is where the person died. They may have last resided in Patterson, Missouri, but actually died in a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. In that case, you would never find a death certificate in Missouri. Having told you all the pitfalls to watch out for, I will say that you can still find many valuable clues in the SSDI.
Who's in the SSDI?
Let's start with who is not in the SSDI. Everyone who received a Social Security number or paid withholding tax is not in the database. My grandmother, who paid withholding taxes most of her life, looked forward to collecting benefits upon retirement at age 60 in 1964. Unfortunately, she died at age 59-1/2. She had a Social Security number, and she paid her fair share of withholding, yet she is not in the SSDI. Why? Her death was not reported to the Social Security Administration by anyone. She had not yet drawn a Social Security check, so there was no need to notify the SSA of her death.
Everyone who received Social Security benefits is not in the database. A young man died in 1953, leaving a pregnant wife. The child received Social Security benefits based on her father's benefits until she was eighteen years old. Yet no record of her father exists in the SSDI. Why? Because his death was not reported to the Social Security Administration. He was 26 years old when he died, so there was no reason to notify the SSA.
So who are all those people in the SSDI? They are persons who:
- Had a Social Security number, and
- Whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration.
A survivor may have requested death benefits from the SSA. A family member may have notified the SSA to stop benefits to the deceased. A funeral home may have notified the SSA as a service to the family. Whether or not the deceased ever received Social Security benefits, if someone notified the SSA of their death, and they had a Social Security number, they probably appear in the SSDI.
When does this index begin? The SSA began to use a computer database in 1962. About 98 percent of the people in the SSDI died after 1962, although a few deaths do date back as far as 1937.
Where Can I Look at the SSDI?
Almost any LDS Family History Center offers free on-site use of the FamilySearch set of CD-ROMs, which include the Social Security Death Index. This version offers one feature that others do not -- it reports foreign death residences.
Several versions of the SSDI are available on the Internet at various genealogy web sites. In addition, several software companies include the SSDI as part of their deluxe programs, or offer it for sale separately.
Be selective as you use different versions of searchable SSDI databases. Try all of them and decide for yourself which is the most flexible, offering you the option to search by first name only, along with birth date, to try to find those females whose married names you don't know. Use them to find out what happened to your great uncle, you have no idea when he died or where his family went. Search by his name and birth date, and see if a record reveals a location of last residence or location where his benefits were sent.
I Found Him! Now What?
When you find a person in the SSDI, you will glean a few facts that you may not have known. Take it one step beyond these facts to learn more. You know a birth date, and the state where the original Social Security card was issued, or at least where it was mailed to the applicant. Look for a birth certificate or census record in that state.
- You have a death date, and location of last residence. Look for an obituary in the local newspaper to determine a death place. Then request a death certificate or contact the funeral home for any records they might have.
- You have the location where the person's lump sum distribution was sent. Search an on-line telephone directory for the last name of the person you think may have received the benefits, and contact them.
- You have the Social Security number. Splurge! Send $7.00 for the original application, as described below.
Request an SS-5
The SS-5, Application for Social Security Account Number, contains the following information: Social Security number, full name (including women's maiden names), address at time of application, employer and employer's address (pre-1947 applications only), age at last birthday, date and place of birth, parents' full names (including mother's maiden name), sex, color, and whether the applicant had previously applied for Social Security or Railroad Retirement. It also contains the application date and the applicant's actual signature. Wouldn't you like to have this information about the person you are researching?
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), SSA will fulfill requests for applications of deceased persons for $7.00, if you provide the Social Security number. If you do not know the number, the search fee is $16.50. Be sure to include the person's Social Security number, full name (including maiden name and name at death), sex, date and place of birth, date of death, and parents' names. Provide proof of death, or state that the person is listed in the SSA Death Master File. Include the following statement: "Microprint required - Printout not sufficient." (Otherwise, you may receive a computer-generated printout instead of a copy of the original application.)
Mail your request and payment to: Social Security Administration, Office of Central Records Operations, 300 N. Green St., P.O. Box 33022, Baltimore, MD 21290-3022.
Now you know who is really in the Social Security Death Index, and all the facts that are available from that source. You've learned how to obtain an individual's application for Social Security card, whether or not they ever collected benefits. You've seen how these few vital facts can lead you to other richer sources. So what are you waiting for? Start looking for those nineteenth and twentieth-century ancestors online today.