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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

March 13, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Social Security Records

Q: What information is provided in the original application for a social security number? I found a family member in the social security index which gives birth date, death date and place of death. What additional information will be gained from writing the Social Security Administration for a copy of the original application? -- Otto

A: Let's look at the information that Social Security Death Index provides first before we move on to what is provided on the original application. The Social Security Death Index usually offers researchers the following information

  • Name of the deceased (remember this is usually the married name for women)
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • Last Residence (this is not necessarily where the person died, but is the last legal residence that the Social Security Administration was aware of)
  • Last Benefit (the zip code where the benefit check was mailed)
  • Social Security Number
  • State in which the social security number is issued

It is common for researchers to assume that the last residence (available in the social security death index) is the place of death. While it is certainly a place to keep in mind when looking for a death record, it is not always the place of death.

The social security death index does indeed provide clues but the social security number application, better known as the SS-5 form, can be a wealth of information. There is a NumIdent form that the Social Security Administration sometimes sends when the SS-5 form no longer exists. The NumIdent is a computer generated listing of some of the information that the Social Security Administration knows about the individual. The SS-5 form is one of my favorites to get because it is often filled out by hand and has the signature of the applicant. The signature is a tangible piece of the ancestor that remains accessible to us.

The SS-5 form has fields for the following information

  • Full name of the applicant (for women this could be their married name)
  • Address at the time of application
  • Name at birth
  • Age
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Name of father
  • Maiden name of mother
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Employment
  • Signature of the applicant

Getting the SS-5 form requires that you be able to prove the death of the individual. Usually a letter indicating that you found the individual listed in the Social Security Death Index along with the necessary identifying information including full name, social security number, and dates of birth and death. (If you search the social security death index on Genealogy.com, a letter can be automatically generated for you.)

The fee to get a copy of the SS-5 form when the social security number is known is now $27. If the number is not provided the price is $29. At this price it is not likely that you will be ordering one for every one of your ancestors or deceased relatives that you find in the SSDI, but when you are having trouble locating the parental information on an individual or do not know where a person was born or when, the SS-5 can certainly help.

Grand Aunt or Great Aunt?

Q: I should know this, but the more I look at it, the more confused I become. How do you refer to your grandparents' siblings and your great-grandparents' siblings? Are they you great aunt, grand aunt, great great uncle or great grand uncle? Thanks! -- Amy

A: You are not the first to be confused by this and I am sure you will not be the last. For some reason we don't always think to apply the same generational distinctions to siblings as we apply to our direct lineage. For instance:

  • Generation 1 - Myself
  • Generation 2 - Parent
  • Generation 3 - Grandparent
  • Generation 4 - Great-grandparent

The same approach should be applied to the siblings of our direct ancestors. We have aunts and uncles, the siblings of our parents, but from that point on, most people go right to great aunts. However, to show you that others are as confused, I saw a recent message from another researcher who had been told that the female siblings, and spouses, were referred to as great aunt and great uncle whereas the male siblings and spouses were known as grand aunts and grand uncles. However, the correct identification of siblings would be as follows

  • Generation 1 - My siblings are my brothers and sisters
  • Generation 2 - My parents' siblings are my aunts and uncles
  • Generation 3 - My grandparents' siblings are my grandaunts and granduncles
  • Generation 4 - My great-grand parents' siblings are my great-grandaunts and great-granduncles

I am sure that for every person to whom you ask this question you will get a different answer. I am also as sure that each person believes that they are right. In fact, I found some charts that went directly from aunt and uncle to great-aunt and great-uncle. This is incorrect though. If your brother's great-grandson is your your great-grandnephew, then it would stand to reason that the boy in question should consider you his great-grandaunt.

Tracing an Old Business

Q: How do you go about finding an old business for information on proprietor, etc.? I think I know the name and location of the business along with a probable date range. Can this information be found? -- Paulette

A: This is an interesting question. So often we are so involved in tracing people that we forget to stop and take a little time to look into the life that they led.

The first resource I would suggest you try would be city directories. In addition to listing the inhabitants alphabetically, you will find information about their employer and if a person owns a business, their entry often includes the full name of the business along with the location.

Don't stop there, though, with the city directory. Directories generally include an index to advertisers and it is possible that your ancestor advertised in the directory. You may also find a special section of the city directory that is divided by professions where you may find record of your ancestor as well.

Newspapers are another resource to turn to when trying to learn more about the business an ancestor owned. Newspapers are full of advertisements and through these advertisements you may find details about an ancestor's business (such as the service offered or what items he may have sold). The newspapers may also have stories about your ancestor and his business, depending on what it was and if anything happened to it.

Another possibility would be a county history, especially one of those published in the last couple of decades. These memorial histories often include details about the businesses in the towns and the proprietors. In some instances I have seen photographs of the store fronts or some history as to how the business was started or who has owned it. In such a search as this I leave no stone unturned. I make it a point to look at any resources or record types I can access because you just never know what you'll find.

How to Edit Someone Else's Tree

Q: My distant cousin has a web site where he posted our family tree. I don't know how to contact him but I have some important additions and corrections to share. Can you tell me how to contact him from his site? -- Gayle

A: First, while your question didn't actually ask this, the title of your message did in a way indicate a desire to make changes to another person's data as you found it online or in a GEDCOM file. So I thought in addition to answering your question I would take a moment to address this as well.

Generally, only the person who created a website can edit it. This is to prevent others from accessing the pages and changing them without telling the site's creator. The same is true of those who are uploading GEDCOM files or other compiled and linked database files.

Now on to your question. Since your distant cousin has posted the information on a Web site, it is probable that there is a way to contact them. Usually, somewhere on the Web site you will find an e-mail address. Usually, you'll find this information on the home page of the site.

If you found your cousin's tree in a linked database, you may need to take a few extra steps to find the contact information. Sometimes, it is just a matter of filling out a form and requesting the information be sent to you via e-mail.

Keep in mind, though, that even after you contact the person, they may not make the changes you have requested. Sometimes people are reluctant to update their research but those who are truly interested in adding to or improving their tree will respond to your message. It is a good idea, though, to first introduce yourself and see if they are interested in sharing information with you or to let them know that you have some information. A gentle approach is usually the best, rather than blasting forth to point out errors. Then be patient. While the Internet is instantaneous, our lives still sometimes get in the way and it can sometimes be days before a person can respond to you.


Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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