Using the Social Security Death Index

by Ruby Coleman

At the conclusion of lectures, during genealogy workshops and throughout class sessions, I ask attendees or students if they have questions. Usually there are questions and I am certain there are questions that are never asked. If you have questions, don't be timid ... ask. Read genealogy how-to books and address questions to genealogy friends. Attend conferences, workshops, lectures and classes and ask questions.

Internet sites that contain genealogical and historical data often have an introduction area that contains brief information on the data. Read it! There sometimes are FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) areas. Read these! Know what you are using, how to best use it and the type of information it contains.

Frequently I am asked questions about the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). People use the index thinking they will find all their relatives and ancestors. When nothing is found, they are puzzled. Why didn't it work? They are certain their relative had a Social Security number.

The Social Security act became a law on 14 August 1935. People were enrolled in 1936 and payroll tax withholdings began in 1937. Between 1936 and 1937 approximately 30 million people applied and received numbers. The first benefits began in 1940.

There were people initially excluded from Social Security. These included farm and domestic workers, self-employed workers, self-employed farmers, medical and legal professionals, railroaders, federal government employees and employees of non-profit companies. Gradually these working classes were included in Social Security withholdings. This took twenty to thirty years from the creation of Social Security.

Before the mid 1970s Social Security number applications were inserted into claims folders. They were not retained for long because of storage problems. The applications usually contain date and place of birth, names of parents (including mother's maiden name) and residence at time of application.

Individuals are shown on the Social Security Death Index only if they had a Social Security number and their death was reported. Reporting the death was and is usually done by the family or funeral home.

Death information has been computerized only since 1962. In that year the Social Security Administration used the database to process requests for benefits. Approximately 98% of the people shown in the database died after 1962.

It is important to remember dates when searching the Social Security Death Index. Almost all deaths prior to 1962 are not indexed. The index includes about 430,000 pre 1963 railroad employees. Some railroaders did not have Social Security numbers and thus their deaths were not reported.

The Social Security number was not always issued in the state of birth. The actual place of death is not shown in the index. The place of last residence or place where death benefits were paid is shown. The death may have occurred there, but again it may have been elsewhere.

The last residence is the place the deceased was last known to have lived from which the benefit was applied. There is a small percentage of entries that do not contain any last residence information. Errors are known to occur in these entries. Zip codes are shown and often change. Boundaries also change and zip codes are known to not match up with cities or communities.

There are no middle names or initials shown in the index. In some rare instances middle initials have found their way into the surname field. This throws us off guard when doing a specific name search. Use your imagination when searching the index.

Always check various spellings, both for given names and surnames. Combinations using middle names is also useful. For common surnames and even given names, you may find it useful to supply a year or full date of birth if known. Check full names and check surnames.

Recently I was able to locate an individual for whom I had only her given name, month and year of birth, plus the state in which she was living when she applied for a Social Security number. The return gathered approximately 20 individuals which were narrowed down to one person. The index is available in a variety of places on Internet, including, . Each search area has their own format for searching and some are known to update more often than others. According to their last update was in May of 2001. The index as of that date included 66,124,141 names.

When locating an individual, use Form SS-5 or a letter with detailed information to obtain a photocopy of the original application. The fee for a request which contains the Social Security number is $27. This should be sent to Freedom of Information Officers, 4-H 8 Annex Building, 6401 Security Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21235.

Information from the index and application form can be used to tap into more resources. With some sleuthing, researchers will find the Social Security Death Index to be extremely helpful.

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