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Overheard in GenForum: Social Security Death Index
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.

October 05, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: What kind of information do you get when you apply for a copy of a SS-5 for someone who is listed on the Social Security Death Index? -- Emma

A: The Social Security Death Index is a wonderful addition to the tools used by genealogists. However, many people do not think to go to the next step. They use the SSDI as a method of pinpointing the date of death of more contemporary family members. However, they forget about the record that may be of use, the SS-5 form.

Genealogists should always exhaust all records. It is when we don't that we end up with brick walls and end-of-line ancestors. Of course, the SSDI and the SS-5 forms will not solve all of our end-of-line ancestor questions, but for some it will turn out to be a gold mine.

The SS-5 form may hold the keys needed to research an ancestor further.

A Look at Social Security

Social Security officially was begun in 1937, with some payments being paid as early as 1940. In fact, the entire reason for the soundexing of the 1880 census was directly attributable to Social Security.

When the federal government was putting the Social Security program into place, they needed to know how many individuals would be drawing from it when it was first launched. The way to do this was to extract the data from the census.

The federal government needed to know how many people would be aged sixty or older in the 1930s. So, as part of a WPA project, the 1880 census was soundexed for all families with children aged ten and younger. Of course, as we have all discovered, there are families that fit this profile that were overlooked when the 1880 census was soundexed, but they did manage to extract a majority of the families.

Enter the SSDI

The Social Security Death Index is a database of those individuals for whom the Social Security Administration has been told are dead. There are other reasons that an individual may not appear in the SSDI, as well.

Prior to the 1960s, farmers, housewives, government employees, non-employed individuals, and those with a separate retirement plan might not have had a Social Security number. Still others may have had one, but they may not appear in the SSDI. This is true of certain occupations, including teachers and railway workers.

However, just because an individual is not included in the SSDI does not mean you cannot get a copy of their SS-5 form. While it is always easier to locate them in the SSDI, and then generate the letter once you have searched the database, there are other ways to find the social security number.

In many cases the social security number can be found on their death certificate. You may be in a Catch-22 type of a situation though in that you are not quite sure when the individual died. More and more, states are putting their indexes to death online. You may be able to find the death date this way.

The SS-5 Form

The ultimate goal with the SSDI should be the SS-5 form. This is the form that gets filled out when someone is applying for a social security number. We have all filled one out. If we have had children since 1988, then we have filled one out for them as well.

While it may seem like you are recreating the wheel to request the SS-5 form, there are times that this may be the only proof you will have for an ancestor's birth. For instance, for those ancestors born in the 1860s to 1880s who immigrated to the United States, it can be difficult to pinpoint their place of birth. On the SS-5 it was required that the applicant supply complete birth information. This means more than just the country of birth, as is usually found on census and death records. Moreover, the maiden name of the applicant's mother was requested, often critical information for a family historian.

In addition to their place of birth and their mother's maiden name, you will also find that it includes the applicant's date of birth. Best of all, you will get a look at your ancestor's signature as they signed the card. For some, this may be the only record on which an original signature will be found.

As I said earlier, you do not have to find them in the SSDI, though that is certainly easier. If you know the Social Security number, you can write a letter and request a copy of the SS-5 form. While you may already be aware of this, I share it here for those who may not know how to get a copy of the SS-5 form. Even if you don't know the social security number, it may still be possible to get a copy of the SS-5 form.

When requesting the form, if you found your ancestor in the SSDI, that is all you need to include in the letter. I find it easier to have the database create the letter — there is an option to do this in the search results window for each individual that fit your search.

If you found the social security number another way, then you usually need to supply a copy of the death certificate for the individual on whom you are requesting the SS-5 form. This is true whether or not the death certificate itself includes the social security number for the person.

In Conclusion

The cost for a copy of the SS-5 form is $7.00 when you know the social security number and $16.00 when you do not. You will need to send your letter and your check to:

Social Security Administration
Freedom of Information Officer
5-H-8 Annex Building
6401 Security Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21235

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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