Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 10
U.S. Social Security
Social Security Number Application Forms for Genealogy
Retirement Board Records
Security Death Index:
Social Security Death Index FAQs
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"Long before the economic
blight of the depression descended on the Nation, millions of our people were
living in wastelands of want and fear. Men and women too old and infirm to work
either depended on those who had but little to share, or spent their remaining
years within the walls of a poorhouse . . .The Social Security Act offers to all
our citizens a workable and working method of meeting urgent present needs and
of forestalling future need . . .
One of the largest and easiest to access databases used for genealogical research is the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). Its information can be utilized to help you learn more about your ancestors, as well as your aunts, uncles and cousins.
Clues and facts from the SSDI often can be used to further genealogical research by enabling you to locate a death certificate, find an obituary, discover cemetery records and track down probate records.
As marvelous a finding aid as it is, the SSDI does not include the names of everyone, even if they had a Social Security number (SNN). If relatives or the funeral home did not report the death to the Social Security Administration, or if the individual died before 1962 (when the records were computerized) then they probably will not appear in this database. The omission of an individual in this index does not indicate the person is still living. It simply means that there was no report of the person's death to Social Security Administration.
When using the Social Security Death Index, in addition to the date of birth and date of death, there are three possible places included as well:
According to the Social Security Administration (SSA):
The nine-digit SSN is composed of three parts:
The Area Number is assigned by the geographical region. 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. This did not necessarily have to be the state where the applicant lived, since a person could apply for their card in any Social Security office. Since 1972, when SSA began assigning SSNs and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, the area number assigned has been based on the ZIP code in the mailing address provided on the application for the original Social Security card. The applicant's mailing address does not have to be the same as their place of residence. Thus, the Area Number does not necessarily represent the state of residence of the applicant, either prior to 1972 or since.
Generally, numbers were assigned beginning in the Northeast and moving westward. So people whose cards were issued in the East Coast states have the lowest numbers and those on the West Coast have the highest numbers.
The state of issuance (this is not necessarily the state of residence at the time of issuance) can be verified by looking at the Social Security number itself. The next two digits of the number are a code used to track fraudulent numbers. The last four digits are randomly assigned.
SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER STATE CODES
Beware of making assumptions about the state of residence at time of death. The one listed as "Last Residence" (more properly should be called "address of record") in SSDI is not necessarily the place of death. This was brought home when researching an individual who died while on vacation in Florida. His "last residence" shows up as New Hampshire, which was his legal residence (or address of record) at the time, but that is not where he died. Consider the possibility that a person might have had two official residences also; many "snowbirds" do.
Read the search results carefully. The actual place of death is not shown in the SSDI. Some records show where "last benefit" was sent, but that is not necessarily the place of death or the deceased's address of record either. "Last Benefit" only refers to the payment of the lump sum death benefit (a burial allowance of about $250 that went to the surviving spouse).
Keep in mind that ZIP codes given are those that existed at the time of the reported death and are not necessarily correct or the same as today's. ZIP codes have changed through the years.
Do not assume that the state in which the number was issued was the state of birth or even the state of residency at the time (see above).
Abbreviations. The following abbreviations or codes, which appear in some records in the "Last Residence" box, usually in parentheses, are internal codes used by SSA and do not mean anything to researchers. Ignore them.
The "Application for a Social Security Number" is commonly referred to as the SS-5. In addition to the SSDI, you may find your ancestor's Social Security number in other ways, especially on death certificates. While it may seem like you are recreating the wheel to request the SS-5 form, there are times that this can be the only proof you will have for an ancestor's birth. For instance, for those ancestors born in the 1860s to 1880s who immigrated to the United States, it can difficult to pinpoint their place of birth. On the SS-5 it was required that the applicant supply complete birth information. This means more than just the country of birth, as is usually found on census and death records. Moreover, the maiden name of the applicant's mother was requested, often critical information for a family historian.
To request a photocopy of the original application for Social Security Card (SS-5), find the particular record of interest and let RootsWeb generate a printer-ready letter addressed to the Social Security Administration for you. Be sure to include the name of the individual, the Social Security number, date and place of death. You will need to include a check or money order for these records currently $27 if you have the Social Security number, $29 without the number. See chart below. The process of obtaining this information usually takes several months, so be patient.
The above chart and additional information can be found here:
Railroad workers were enrolled in the same Social Security program, but from 1937 to 1963 they had numbers ranging between 700 and 728 as the first three digits. In 1964 their numbers began to reflect the same geographic location as other workers. Some railroad workers received Social Security benefits, but some did not. However, it is wise to check the SSDI in any case.
The U.S. Railroad Retirement Board was created in the 1930s, and has records dating back to 1937, but they exist only for those whose employers were covered under the Railroad Retirement Act. You can obtain information about deceased individuals for genealogical purposes. The records are arranged by Social Security number. If you do not know the number, provide as much identifying information as you have. Currently there is a $21 nonrefundable fee for a search in these records. Send request, along with check or money order, to:
Allen, Desmond Walls and Carolyn Earle Billingsley. Social Security Applications: A Genealogical Resource. Bryant, Arkansas, Research Associates, 1989, 1991.
Hinckley, Kathleen W., CGRS, "Locating the Living: Twentieth-Century Research Methodology." National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 77, No. 3 (1989).
Hinckley, Kathleen W., CGRS, Locating Lost Family Members & Friends: Modern genealogical research techniques for locating the people of your past and present. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 1999.