Social Security Death Index

A great deal of our genealogical research centers around the major life events of our ancestors. This includes when they were born, when they married and ultimately when they died. These three dates can help to uniquely identify a person that we are researching.

In this post we are going to be focusing on that final life event which ultimately comes for everyone in time. There are many potential sources for death date information but one of the main ones in the United States is the Social Security Death Index.

What Is the Social Security Administration?

The social security administration (SSA) is an independent government agency that administers social security. It is an insurance program that consists of retirement, disability and survivor benefits. In order to qualify for these benefits most workers pay into the system through social security taxes.

The head offices of the social security agency are located in Woodlawn, Maryland and is referred to as the Central Office. There are tens of thousands of workers employed by the social security agency and it is the largest government program in the United States.

It is estimated that by the end of the 2022 fiscal year the agency will have paid out $1.2 trillion in benefits to 66 million citizens and legal residents of the United States. An additional 61 billion is expected in SSI benefits and 7.5 million to low-income individuals.

This government agency is a vital part of the country's economy and without it millions of already struggling Americans would have nothing. It is a program that many have paid into for decades in preparation for retirement and as an insurance policy against sudden disability.

History of the Social Security Agency

On August 14th 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law as part of his New Deal initiative. This led to the creation of the Social Security Board (SSB), a presidentially appointed group of three executives tasked with overseeing the social security program.

With zero budget, staff or even furniture the SSB finally obtained funding from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. It was on October 14th 1936 that the first social security office opened its doors in Austin, Texas.

In January of 1937 social security taxes were first collected. Just a few years later the first social security check was issued to Ida Mary Fuller of Battleboro, Vermont. Ida’s check was dated January 31st 1940 and she received $22.54.The SSB in 1939 merged with the U.S. Public Health Service, the Civilian Conservation Corp and other government agencies to become the Federal Security Agency. In 1846 under President Harry S. Truman the SSB was named the Social Security Administration SSA.

In 1953 the Federal Security Agency was dismantled and the SSA was placed under the banner of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Finally in 1994 President Bill Clinton made the Social Security Administration an independent body once again.

What Is The Social Security Death Index?

When we understand that all American citizens, naturalized immigrants and resident aliens require a Social Security number for proof of identification and authorization to work, we soon realize that this number follows us throughout our life and when we die this nine digit code is very important.

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) was a database of death records that was created from the United States SSA Death Master File. This was until 2014 when the rules changed and public access to the Death Master File had to take place through a certification program.

Those researching the deaths of ancestors will likely find that most people who have died between 1936 and 2014 can be found on the Social Security Death Index. This does however only hold true if the person had a Social Security number when they died.

It is estimated that since 1973 the SSDI recorded 93% to 96% of the deaths of individuals aged 65 or over. The index was updated frequently and by June of 2011 there were 89,835,920 records available.

What Is the Availability of the Social Security Death Index?

As mentioned the source for the Social Security Death Index is the Death Master File which itself requires certified requests to access. The SSDI however can be found on a number of genealogy websites online.

This is a popular tool for genealogists due to its accurate information regarding individuals. As Social Security number holders' biographical details are required which ultimately end up on the Social Security Death Index.

It is not only useful for genealogists as it has also been used in several other ways over the years. The field of medical research sometimes uses the database to backfill data from the results of clinical trials. Some trial participants drop out and disappear from trials so the researchers use SSDI to determine what may have become of them.

What Can Social Security Death Index Records Tell Us?

When it comes to genealogical records we researchers always want to know what they can tell us. In the case of the Social Security Death Index it’s more than just a date of death.

What the Index Tells Us:

  • Given name and surname (middle initial since the 1990s)
  • Date of birth
  • Month and year of death (Full date of death for accounts active after 2000)
  • Social Security number
  • State or territory Social Security number was issued
  • Last place of residence when alive including ZIP code

Now the above is the basic information you will find on the index itself but you can not see any image of documents it is all transcribed. When you locate the correct person in the database you can make a request for a copy of the form SS-5 that was filled out to get the person's Social Security number.

On this form you may find information such as birthplace, parents full names and the person's maiden name if applicable. Sometimes however this information may be blacked out so this is something to be aware of.

Does Social Security Make Mistakes?

This may be an alarming statistic I am about to lay down here so hold on. In a government audit it was found that over a two-year period 23,000 people were wrongly listed as having died. This means they were entered on the Master Death File and made their way onto the SSDI.

Those who this happened to will have faced a long and difficult struggle to fix the problem. Once people are recorded to have died through the Social Security system their lives get turned upside down. They have to jump through hoops to prove that they are still alive and reverse the process.

It can result in medical insurance being canceled, tax issues and an inability to use your Social Security number. Potentially if you do manage to get everything turned back on then your Social Security number may be out in the public via the SSDI.

Can the Social Security Death Index Help Me Find Out About Immigrant Ancestors?

The death index in and of itself can not help you find out about your immigrant ancestors however locating the record can get you access to the person's Social Security card application form. On this you can potentially find the names of their parents and where they were born.

When assisting a client with applying for dual Italian citizenship they were unsure where to find their ancestor's birth records. They knew he was born in Italy but not where exactly. A search for his Social Security Death Index record led to his application form which featured his parent's name and the town he was born in.

Immigration records are usually the place where people will seek this information but you would be surprised where else these details can be found.

Conclusion

The Social Security Death Index is a very handy genealogical tool for finding out some basic biographical information. This covers Social Security card holders who have died between 1935 and 2014. It was in 2014 that they stopped adding details to the SSDI and required you make a request from the Master Death File for information.

It is not a perfect system as potentially thousands of individuals may be falsely reported as having died each year. If you do manage to locate your ancestors record in the SSDI you can use this to make a request for a copy of their Social Security card application.

The application may contain extra information such as where they were born and the names of their parents.

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  • " Social Security Death Index". NameCensus.com. Accessed on October 5, 2022. https://namecensus.com/blog/social-security-death-index/.

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