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Overheard in GenForum: Social Security Question
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

June 14, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I have a relative who died in 1952. He is listed in the California Death Index, complete with Social Security number. His given name was "Marcellus," but he was known to the family as "Uncle Les." His listing in the California index is under "Leslie." I now am in possession of his death certificate, listing the same social security number. He is NOT listed in the Social Security Indexes under either first name, or under the social security number. I even searched using the number and the surname alone. I would like to get a copy of his social security application to see if there were any descendants. He was divorced at the time of his death. Would it be worth writing to the Social Security Department with his name and number? Or is it possible that no one (funeral home, etc.) ever notified the government of his death? -- Joan

A: There is much misunderstanding when it comes to the Social Security Death Index. Some think that it is an index to all that have died in the United States since the United States began. Others think that it lists all deaths of all individuals who had a social security number.

There are a number of reasons why a person may not show up in the Social Security Death Index. Some of them have to do with occupation, while others have to do with when the individual died.

The SSDI is not an all encompassing death index.

Who's in the SSDI?

The Social Security Death Index comes from the Social Security Master Death File. The computerized portion of this file was not begun until 1962. There are very few entries for those who died prior to 1962. This is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about the SSDI. Most people think that it includes entries for everyone dating back to the 1930s when the first social security checks were being issued.

There are other reasons why an individual may not appear in the SSDI, even if they died after 1962. Most often it is related to their occupation. Many occupations have or had their own pension plans. Railroad employees are one of the biggest groups. They were assigned special social security numbers beginning with a block of 700s.

You were right that one way a person may not be included in the SSDI is if the Social Security Administration was not informed of the person's death. This happens even today.

Getting the SS-5 Form

Even if you do not find a relative in the SSDI, it is still possible to request a copy of his or her SS-5 form. If you know the social security number, as you do from the death record or the California death index, then the cost is much lower and it makes it easier for the Social Security Administration to locate the record.

The letter can be a simple request. The important thing is to remember to mention the entry in the SSDI or to include a copy of the death certificate to show that the individual is indeed deceased. A sample letter is included below that you can copy and paste into your word processor to modify as you need to.

Sample Letter

Date of request: 06 Jun 2001

Social Security Administration
Office of Central Records Operations
Attention: FOIA Workgroup
P.O. Box 17772
300 N. Greene Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21290

Please send me a photocopy of the actual application for a Social Security card (Form SS-5 — Social Security Number Record Third Party Request for Photocopy) filed by the person listed below.

I obtained this information from the death certificate, which is included as proof of the individual's death.

I understand that the fee is $7.00, when the Social Security number is provided, or $16.50 if the Social Security number is unknown or incorrect. Enclosed is a check or money order for $___________, made payable to the Social Security Administration.

Thank you for your assistance.

Birth: 25 Dec 1924
Death: 16 Sep 1993



Daytime Phone Number:

In Conclusion

The Social Security Death Index is a wonderful tool when researching many of our Twentieth Century relatives. It is important to remember, though, that there are circumstances when an individual may not show up. This does not mean we cannot request a copy of the individual's SS-5 form.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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

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