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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Understanding the SSDI
by Rhonda R. McClure

March 09, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

The Social Security Death Index is an excellent tool for those doing 20th century research. Many of us in our research are dealing with families where the children have moved and family unit is now spread apart. As such, knowledge as to when cousins, aunts, and uncles passed away is oftentimes not known. The Social Security Death Index offers the chance to search for these individuals. It is important to keep in mind that the omission of an individual in this index does not mean the person is still living. It simply means that there was no Social Security death benefit paid out in the name of that person.

While the Social Security Death Index can be found on many online sites, few truly understand how best to use it and what it will tell them. And unless you understand what the different data fields represent and how the information was acquired, it is easy to be led astray.

Unless you understand what the different data fields represent and how the information was acquired, it is easy to be led astray.

The Information Included

When using the Social Security Death Index, in addition to the date of birth and date of death, there are three possible places included as well: state of issuance (where they got their social security number), residence at time of death and death benefit (where the benefit check was mailed). The state of issuance can be verified by looking at the Social Security number itself. The first three numbers of the Social Security number are a code to the state in which the person applied for the number (see codes).

The next two digits of the number are a code used to track fraudulent numbers. The last four digits are randomly assigned. Beware the residence at time of death. This is not always the place of death. This was brought home when researching an individual who died while on vacation in Florida. His death residence shows up as New Hampshire, which was his legal residence at the time.

A Little History

Social Security was begun in 1937, with some payments being paid as early as 1940. The Social Security Death Index is the computerized index to death benefits paid out starting in 1962. While the SSDI does include a few pre-1962 entries, the majority of those included in this index are from 1962 through the present time. Depending on where you are searching the SSDI, the present cutoff date can be anywhere from last year to June 1999.

While the limitations of dates may exclude your family member, other reasons that your ancestor may not be included in the SSDI may have to do with their occupation or lack thereof. It was not until 1988 that all children had to have social security numbers. And prior to the 1960s, farmers, housewives, government employees, non-employed individuals and those with a separate retirement plan may not have had a social security number.

Taking It One Step Further

The "Application for a Social Security Number" is commonly referred to as the SS-5 in genealogical circles. In addition to the SSDI, you may find your ancestor's social security number in other ways, especially on death certificates. While it may seem like you are recreating the wheel to request the SS-5 form, there are times that this can be the only proof you will have for birth information. For instance, for those ancestors who were born in the 1860s to 1880s and immigrated to the United States, rarely can you 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 found on census and death records.

To write for the SS-5 form, you do not need to fill out a special form. A letter with the details of the individual in question is acceptable. In your letter include the name of the individual, the social security number, date and place of death and reason the information is wanted. It may be necessary to include a copy of the death certificate. Remember that if the individual is dead, that the Freedom of Information Act entitles you to this information. Send your letter to Social Security Administration, Office of Earnings Operations, FOIA Workgroup, 300 N. Greene Street, PO Box 33022, Baltimore, MD 21290.

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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