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Research Tip 3: Social Security Records

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
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What You Can (and Can't) Learn from the Social Security Death Index
Raymond Wright provides an overview to the Social Security Death Index and discusses what you are likely to learn from it. Find out why the Index was created and why it is the perfect jumping off point for further research.
The Social Security Act of 1936 provided security for American workers, and a source of information for today's genealogists and family historians. Each time a participant in the Social Security program dies, a death certificate must be filed. The Social Security Administration maintains a computer database that is an index of these deceased persons and makes it available to interested persons. It is available both at this Internet address and in any LDS Family History Center.

The implementation of the Social Security Act in 1937 stipulated that applicants fill out forms requiring data about their birth, family status, and employment. Not only were millions of files created for members of our families, it forced many of our relatives, who until then had no recorded birth, to go to the local county clerks or state office of vital statistics to file a delayed birth certificate. Do not overlook these delayed birth certificates in your research.

The Social Security Death Index allows you to type in an ancestor's name and learn if their death was reported to the Social Security Administration. If it was, you'll learn their social security number, date, and place of death, date and place of issuance of their social security card. This information permits you to contact the Social Security Administration to obtain a copy of your ancestor's social security file. This file will contain information about them and their family. It also contains information about employment and even military service.

Some users of the Social Security Death Index database are surprised to learn that they cannot find sought-for ancestors. Remember that persons who were self-employed, employed by railroad companies, the federal government, or the military may not be listed. Railroad workers are covered by the Railroad Retirement Act of 1935. The Railroad Retirement Board in Chicago has their records. Check with nearest National Archives regional office for guidance in finding military personnel records. The nearest federal personnel office will have information about government employees.


About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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Ask an Expert: Understanding the Social Security Death Index

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