The Social Security Administration's Death Index (SSDI) can be a boon to beginning genealogists. The Social Security number is the most valuable piece of information when seeking a number of other documents. It is essential for ordering paper copies of original death records, obituaries, and more. The SSDI is the first step in obtaining this information.
The Social Security Death Records information has not been updated for several years. However, the majority of genealogists are looking for information about people who passed away several years ago so that lack of current entries is usually not a huge drawback.
If you can only trace your U.S. ancestry back to your grandparents or possibly great-grandparents, the Social Security Administration can help you find where they were born, the names of their parents, and more. The SSDI can be especially helpful for those researching immigrants as the data often shows where the individual was born in "the old country." Sometimes it will show the exact location of the town or a country that no longer exists, although that is not guaranteed.
The Social Security Administration was created by an act of law in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal program. The act laid out a retirement system for many Americans, although not all. The act also created a new governmental agency to manage the program. The Social Security Administration has since become one of the largest agencies in the U.S. Federal Government.
The Social Security Administration's Death Index (SSDI) originally was a database of deceased persons who received Social Security Benefits. The Social Security Administration started computerizing records in 1962. This made it possible to produce an index of people who had Social Security numbers and are deceased. Most death records prior to 1962 were never computerized and therefore do not appear in the SSDI although a few exceptions do exist. Some online Web sites advertise that the data they possess will contain information about deaths "as early as 1937," but that claim is a bit misleading; 99.9% of the information is for 1962 and later.
Initially, the Social Security Administration only recorded the deaths of individuals who were receiving retirement benefits from the Administration. Those who died before reaching retirement age were not listed. Neither were those who had different retirement systems, such as railroad workers, school teachers, and other municipal, state, and federal employees. In the 1970s the railroad and many other retirement systems were merged into the Social Security system. Deaths of those retirees then started appearing in the SSDI.
In the late 1980s and after, all deaths in the U.S. were reported to the Social Security Administration and recorded in the SSDI. You can find deaths of children and non-retired adults listed for the 1990s and later, but not for earlier years.
Because legal aliens in the U.S. can obtain a Social Security card, their names may appear in the SSDI if their deaths were reported, even if the death occurred overseas.
The online SSDI databases contain the following information fields:
Social Security number
Date of Death
Date of Birth
Last Known Residence
Location of Last Benefit
Date and Place of Issuance
You can access the Social Security Death Index at no charge on a number of Web sites, including the following:
New England Historic Genealogical Society https://www.americanancestors.org/search/category-search/344/vital-records-incl-bible-cemetery-church-and-ssdi
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) offer the Social Security Death Index on their popular Family Search site at https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/1202535
Keep in mind, however, that the online SSDI database is only an index -- an abbreviated listing. The Social Security Administration holds additional information that can be a genealogical jackpot. The index listing of an ancestor is merely your ticket to this jackpot.
From 1936 on, anyone who has applied for a Social Security Card filled out an application form (SS-5) that the U.S. Government keeps on file. This application form (SS-5) contains the following information:
*Full name at birth (including maiden name)
*Present mailing address
Age at last birthday
Date of birth
*Place of birth (city, county, state)
*Father's full name "regardless of whether living or dead"
*Mother's full name, including maiden name, "regardless of whether living or dead"
*Sex and race
*Ever applied for SS number/Railroad Retirement before? Yes/No
*Current employer's name and address
The items marked with an asterisk are not available in the online SSDI database but are available in the original SS-5 applications.
The SS-5 form is obviously much more valuable to the genealogist than the limited information shown in the online death index. The Social Security Administration can supply photocopies of the original Social Security application form (the SS-5) to anyone who requests information on a deceased individual. You can obtain a photocopy of the SS-5 form by writing to the Social Security Administration.
The SSA charges $21 for each individual SS-5 copy if you can provide the Social Security number of the deceased person, $29 if you cannot provide the number. (A computer extract is available for $16, but those extracts do not include the names of the individual's parents nor the place of birth.) The SSA is not in the business of doing genealogical research and cannot, by law, expend Social Security Trust Fund money for purposes not related to the operation of the Social Security program. The $21 fee is intended to offset the cost to the government whenever SSA provides information from its files for non-program purposes.
To obtain the photocopy of the original SS-5, you must fill out Form SSA-711, the "Request for Deceased Individual's Social Security Record," available at https://www.ssa.gov/forms/ssa-711.pdf.
There is a fee of $21.00 U.S. for most records requests. Send your request and check to:
Social Security Administration
OEO DEBS FOIA
P.O. Box 33022
Baltimore, Maryland 21290-3022
If you want to obtain the SS-5 forms for more than one person, it is suggested that you mail multiple forms individually (in different envelopes) and include separate checks. Be patient. You may have to wait several months for the response to your request(s).
Social Security Numbers
It is interesting to note that you can tell where a Social Security Number was issued simply by looking at the first few digits of the number. This does not tell where the person was born, only where he or she was living when the number was issued. Nonetheless, it can be a valuable clue as to where to look for additional information.
The Social Security Account Number (SSAN) is divided into three sets of digits. For example, let’s take 123-45-6789. The 3 digits in the first group indicate the state or territory in which the number was originally issued. The second group of 2 numbers is used to define the people within the state. The third group of 4 digits is simply issued in numerical sequence.
The following list shows the area indicated by first 3 digits:
001-003 New Hampshire
035-039 Rhode Island
050-134 New York
135-158 New Jersey
232-236 West Virginia
237-246 North Carolina
247-251 South Carolina
501-502 North Dakota
503-504 South Dakota
525 New Mexico (also 585 below)
577-579 District of Columbia
580 U.S. Virgin Islands
581-585 Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa
585 New Mexico (some 585 numbers)
700-729 Railroad Retirement Board
A few Social Security Numbers beginning with a 9 have been issued, but these are very rare.
Whether you’re just getting starting on your family research or picking up on details of lines of descent, Social Security Death records can provide you with information and leads that speed and validate your findings.