Tips for using the Social Security Death Index

SSDI application Szucs
Courtesy of Ancestry.com

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is a widely used collection for modern genealogical research. It is composed of information provided by the Social Security Administration (SSA) for those individuals (with Social Security numbers) who died between 1962* and the present. The SSDI often provides the following information about a deceased individual:

  • The person’s full name (for married women, the record was often recorded using their married name)
  • Social Security number
  • State where the Social Security number was issued
  • Month and year of death
  • Last zip code of the residence or zip code where the death benefit was sent

*some earlier dates prior to 1962 can be found

The SSA provides updates to the SSDI on a monthly basis, so it is possible to find more/less information on one database versus another. If you are looking for a recent SSDI entry you may want to search several of the free databases available online:

But Don’t Stop There!! The SSDI can lead to more information about your ancestors!!

First, It may be helpful to know that a Social Security number is made up of series of systematic numbers: the Area, Group, and Serial Numbers:

The Area Number (the first three numbers in the series) refers to a specific geographical region designated by the SSA. Those individuals who applied for their Social Security number from 1935 to 1972 received an Area Number that referred to the local Social Security office in the state in which the card was issued. For those who received their Social Security number after 1972, the Area Number corresponded to the zip code included on their application.**

**It should be noted, however, that a specific Area Number does not necessarily indicate that the individual was living in a particular State at the time of the Social Security application (both before and after 1972). Prior to 1972, individuals could have applied (in-person) for a Social Security number in a neighboring state or their state of employment. Likewise, Area Numbers that were received after 1972 (in hospitals or via mail) were affixed a number corresponding to the zip code indicated on an application. Therefore, if a family moved or had a different mailing address, the Area Number may be different from an individual’s residence at the time of birth.

The Group Number (the middle two numbers in the series) refers to an assigned number, ranging from 01 to 99, within the particular Area Number allocated to a state. The first groups of numbers were issued using odd numbers from 01 through 09 and then even numbers from 10 through 98. After all of the numbers in group 98 of a specific area were issued, the even group 02 through 08 were used, followed by odd groups 11 through 99.

The Serial Number (the final four numbers in the series) refers to the final four assigned numbers, ranging from 0001 through 9999, within each group.

Second, because the SSDI is itself an index, and not the original application, other information can be learned from the Application for a Social Security Number or the SS-5 Form.

The SS-5 application often provides additional information about an individual that was not included on the SSDI record. Additionally, because the personal information included on the application was usually provided by the individuals applying (although in some cases the information may have been provided by the employer), the facts tend to be more accurate. The SS-5 application can provide some of the following information:

  • First, middle and last name (if female this may include a maiden name)
  • Present mailing address
  • Present employer
  • Age at last birthday
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth (including city, county, and state)
  • Father’s full name
  • Mother’s full maiden name
  • Race
  • Date and signature

To order a copy of a deceased individual’s original SS-5 application, you may do so online at: https://secure.ssa.gov/apps9/eFOIA-FEWeb/internet/main.jsp or via mail at:

Social Security Administration
OEO FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Greene Street
P.O. Box 33022
Baltimore, MD 21290-3022

However, one must be diligent about the newest SSA privacy laws. As of 2011, the SSA will not fulfill a copy request for an SS-5 application for any individual who has a birthdate within the last 120 years. The only exception to this law requires proof of death (using a death certificate, obituary, newspaper article, or tombstone). Therefore, if you are ordering an SS-5 application for a younger individual, you may want to apply in writing. Be sure to include proof of death with the application.

Moreover, this privacy restriction also applies to the names of the deceased’s parents. According to the SSA, “under our current policy, we do not release the parents’ names on an SS-5 application unless the parents are proven deceased, have a birth date more than 120 years ago, or the number holder on the SS-5 is at least 100 years of age.”[1] Therefore, if you are looking for information about the deceased’s parents (which I am sure you are), you must provide proof that the parents are deceased. Again, you will want to apply for the SS-5 application in writing, including proof of death with the application.

For more information, you may want to review Judy G. Russell’s Legal Genealogist blog post about the SS-5 application process: http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog/2013/05/31/ordering-the-ss-5/

Note

[1] http://www.ssa.gov/foia/request.html#a0=0.

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About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

10 thoughts on “Tips for using the Social Security Death Index

  1. Not all deaths in 1962 are on this list. My maternal grandfather died in March 1962 (he was collecting SS at that time ) and he is not the list.

  2. Also it can be tricky about the “last residence.” My mother’s SSDI shows her last residence as St. Louis, Missouri. She had not lived there for 35 years prior to her death and had been receiving her payments in Hingham.

  3. I’m confused. If no info is released on deaths within 120 years and the last I looked, 1962 was less than 120 yrs ago, why are you even talking about it now?

    1. Deborah, thank you for your comment. The 120 year limitation refers to the date of birth, not the date of death. Therefore, the SSA should release a record for someone who was born in 1894 or prior.

  4. Not all people ever had a SSN. Some people who worked for the government did not, and railroad workers did not. This may have changed, but I can remember hunting and hunting for a relative, only to be told he didn’t have one because he worked for the railroad. I remember going to get mine with my younger brother, I think because he needed one for a paper route, and our mother decided she might as well take both of us to the office together. We ended up in two different lines, so our numbers are not consecutive, but we were very excited that they were so close. We had no idea that there was a system. I learned about that later when doing a grad school research project. The university gave me the random sample of students in SSN order, and included where they were from. It became very obvious that they were geographic. This has been a huge help in genealogical work, when for some reason I have the number but no idea where the person was born or died. It’s also the case that the “last residence” may have nothing to do with where the person ever lived. It’s where the final check went, and could be where the survivor lived. That could be an adult child. These days, most newborns are issued SSNs. In most cases, that’s where they will live, at least in childhood. But not always. One of my cousins lived in a remote area and had a high risk pregnancy. So her family “moved” for the last few months to a place in the next state that had better prenatal and neonatal care. So the baby’s SSN was issued where she was born, not where the family really resided. SSNs are very useful, and very complex in some cases. Thanks for this overview!

  5. The link provided at the begging of this article to SSDI on AmericanAncestors.com is broken (as of 15 Mar 2020).

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