Thursday, August 9, 2012

Social Security Sleuthing - The Social Security Death Master File

Social Security Sleuthing - The Social Security Death Master File

Social Security Sleuthing
By Pamela Boyer Porter, CGRS, CGL
The Social Security Death Master File

Commonly referred to as the “Social Security Death Index”, the Social Security Death Master File (SSDMF) is a database created by the Social Security Administration. The SSA’s original SSDMF database file contains the following information fields: Social Security number, last name, first name, date of death, date of birth, zip code of last residence, and zip code of lump sum payment to beneficiary. It also may contain a special state or country residence code, especially if the person died outside the U.S.
At first glance, many genealogists think this is readily available information that they probably already have. Don’t overlook this resource! It can provide a previously unknown Social Security number, enabling you to order the individual’s Social Security application or claims file, leading to discovery of a birth place, a maiden name, or parents’ names. Finding a birth and death date and Social Security number can help in a request for a death certificate or obituary. The SSDMF can provide clues to the person’s residence when he or she first received a Social Security card, or to a possible last residence. It can provide a clue about where the lump-sum distribution beneficiary lived. SSDMF searches can help fill in the gaps on collateral lines, especially for somewhat unusual surnames.
The SSA does not provide direct public access to this database of approximately 58 million deaths. However, the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Technical Information Service does sell the information to various genealogical services or vendors. The 17 magnetic reels of tape cost about $6,000 for the entire file, with quarterly updates. Genealogical vendors who purchase the SSDMF use the information to develop their own indexes. Several companies include a version of the SSDI with their genealogical database programs. Some companies offer the SSDI for sale on CD-ROMs. Various versions of the SSDI are available on the Internet (see Internet Resources–Social Security Death Index). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) Family History Centers all offer free use of the SSDI as part of their FamilySearch™ computer system.
Who’s in the Social Security Death Master File?
Many false assumptions are made about who can be found in this widely available computer resource. First, let’s clear up some common misconceptions about the file. The SSDMF is not an index to all deceased individuals who have held Social Security numbers. It is not a database of all deceased who have received Social Security benefits, or whose families have received survivor benefits. The SSDMF does not contain only the names of persons who died after 1962. The SSDMF does not contain only the names of U.S. citizens.
So, whose name does appear in the SSDMF? This database contains names and basic information about persons with Social Security numbers whose deaths have been reported to the Social Security Administration. A survivor requesting death benefits may have reported the death to SSA. It may have been reported to stop Social Security benefits to the deceased. Funeral homes often report deaths to the SSA as a service to family members. Beginning in 1962, the SSA began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits. About 98 percent of the people in the SSDMF died after 1962, but a few death dates go back as far as 1937. Legal aliens in the U.S. can obtain a Social Security card, so their names may appear in the SSDMF, if their deaths were reported. Some 400,000 railroad retirees are also included in the SSDMF.
Using the Social Security Death Master File
The commercial versions of the SSDMF vary in what information they include, and in how you can search the file. For example, the LDS FamilySearch™ version of the SSDI includes individuals who died in foreign countries—other versions may not. Some allow a search of first name only, a good resource for finding a female for whom you know only a maiden name. Some provide only the zip code of residence and final payment, while others list a place name with the zip code. Be creative in your searches, and be selective about the version of the SSDI that you use.
Be aware of data entry errors made in the original SSDMF database, which get passed on to all commercial versions. Kathleen Hinckley, CGRS, a specialist in twentieth century research, provides a compilation of surname errors found in the death master file on her Family Detective web site (see Internet Resources). 
Social Security Claims Files
A Social Security claim file exists when an individual or survivors receive any kind of Social Security benefits. Most claims files contain copies of supporting documentation, such as birth certificates, death certificates, naturalization papers, or proof of age and relationship for survivor benefits. Many who applied for early Social Security benefits were born before birth registration was required, and their Social Security claims files may provide proof of birth in the form of other primary source documents. Unfortunately, most claim files are destroyed about five years after the death of the claimant or surviving beneficiaries.
Writing for More Information
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), SSA will fulfill requests for copies of original SS-5 Social Security Number Applications of deceased persons for $27.00, if you provide the Social Security number. If you do not know the Social Security number, the search fee is $29.00. Be sure to include the person’s Social Security number, full name (including maiden 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.” A computer extract of a Social Security Number Application can be obtained for $16.00, if you provide the Social Security number. If you do not know the Social Security number, a computer extract is $18.00.
Under the FOIA, the SSA also fulfills requests for claim file searches for deceased persons for a fee of $14, plus 10 cents per page for photocopies, and postage. Write a letter containing the same information given above and request the person’s claim file. You do not need to request a microprint—if the requested file still exists, you will receive photocopies of its contents. The search fee is non-refundable, even if no record is found.
Mail SS-5 and Claim File Requests and payment to:
Social Security Administration
OEO FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Green Street
P.O. Box 33022
Baltimore, MD 21290-3022
Internet Resources
Social Security Sleuthing
An on-line article by Pamela Boyer Porter, CGRS
Social Security Administration
The Web site of the Social Security Administration provides copious amounts of information about Social Security’s history and benefits, including an on-line SSA manual.
National Archives and Records Administration
NARA’s web site contains some useful information about Social Security records for the genealogist or historian.
Railroad Retirement Board
Visit RRB’s site to learn the history of railroad retirement and how it is affected by Social Security.
Family Detective
This web page provides a frequently updated compilation of Social Security death master file data entry errors.
Social Security Death Index
The following Internet sites offer free on-line searches of the SSDI:
Family Tree Maker™
Kindred Konnections Family History Research Center
Lineages, Inc.

Selected Readings
Allen, Desmond Walls and Carolyn E. Billingsley. Social Security Applications: A Genealogical Resource. Conway, Arkansas: Research Associates, 1995.
Family History SourceGuide™ — U.S. Social Security Death Index. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990. Available online at <> or at Family History Centers.
Gehring, Jake. “Social Security Death Master File: A Much Misunderstood Index.” Online <>. Printout dated 11 May 2000.
Hinckley, Kathleen W. Locating Lost Family Members & Friends. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 1999. Chapter 7, “Social Security Administration,” pages 55-72.
Hinckley, Kathleen W. “Skillbuilding: The Social Security Death [Benefits] Index.”OnBoard, Newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, vol. 5, no. 1 (January 1999).
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1997. Chapter 18, “Tracking Twentieth-Century Ancestors,” pages 636-639, by Kathleen W. Hinckley, contains helpful information about Social Security records.
 The U.S. Social Security Act was passed in 1935. Was your ancestor one of the first 30 million U.S. residents who received Social Security numbers between November 1936 and June 1937, or one who applied for a number later? Social Security Administration (SSA) applications dating from 1936 can be helpful to the genealogist seeking facts about an ancestor. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) of some 55 million deaths reported to the SSA is widely available, and can provide other important clues. Learn the facts about what is available for genealogists from SSA records, and why these twentieth-century resources can be so helpful to earlier research.
History of Social Security
A few dates in the Social Security historical timeline are important to genealogists. Knowing what the law required or allowed regarding Social Security at a given time allows researchers to analyze information that may be available for their ancestors.
14 Aug 1935  
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act into law.
Approximately 30 million U.S. residents apply for and receive Social Security numbers.
1 Jan 1937  
Workers begin acquiring credits toward old-age insurance benefits, and payroll tax (FICA) withholding begins.
Application for Social Security Number no longer includes employer information.
Electronic requests for benefits become commonly used, resulting in what is known as the Social Security Death Index.
Issuance of Social Security numbers beginning with 700-728 to railroad employees was discontinued.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Medicare into law. Many citizens over age 65 receive Social Security cards for the first time.
Department of Defense begins using Social Security numbers instead of military service numbers to identify Armed Forces personnel.
SSA is required by law to issue Social Security numbers to any legally admitted alien upon entry, and to obtain evidence of age and citizenship or alien status and identity.
SSA begins assigning Social Security numbers and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, and the area number assigned is based on the mailing address zip code from the application.
SSA program enables parents to automatically obtain a Social Security number for a newborn infant when the birth is registered with the state.
What’s in a Number?
A nine-digit Social Security number is composed of three parts:
  • The Area Number
    The first three digits in a Social Security number comprise the Area number. Before 1972, this number identified the state in which the applicant’s original Social Security card was issued. Since 1972, all Social Security numbers have been assigned and issued from one office in Baltimore, and the Area number identifies the mailing address zip code of the applicant. An applicant’s mailing address, either before or after 1972, may not be the same as the residence. The Area number is merely an indicator that an applicant resided in or used an address in a particular state at the time the Social Security card was originally issued. A list of area numbers and corresponding states is available on the SSA’s Web site (see Internet Resources) or in The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy (see Selected Readings).
  • The Group Number
    The middle two digits of a Social Security number range from 01 to 99, but they are not issued in consecutive order. The SSA World Wide Web site contains a frequently updated list of the latest Group numbers issued within each area.
  • The Serial Number The last four digits of a Social Security number run serially from 0001 through 9999.
Employees of U.S. railroads earn retirement through the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), but they also have Social Security cards. Before June 1963, railroad employees received special Social Security numbers in the 700-728 area range. After that date, their numbers were assigned based on their mailing address, just like everyone else.
The SS-5: Application for Social Security Number
Chances are if an individual worked in the United States after 1935, he or she applied for and received a Social Security number. Even non-citizens have Social Security numbers. The SS-5, Application for Social Security 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 signature.
In the 1970s, the SSA microfilmed all SS-5 application forms, created a computer database of selected information from the forms, and destroyed the originals. This SSA internal computer database contains some, but not all, of the information on the original applications. When requesting an SS-5, genealogists generally should ask for a microprint of the microfilmed original, rather than a printout or abstract from the SSA computer database. 

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