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Genealogy Tips: How to Use the Social Security Death Index

Updated on August 31, 2012

In this modern day of privacy concerns and identity theft, it's become routine to guard your Social Security information. We think of it as off limits, kept secret by the government. But there's actually a great deal of information readily available through the Social Security Administration (SSA) – the information for deceased individuals.

Many genealogists have made use of the Social Security Death Index, or SSDI. The SSDI doesn't contain everyone who ever had a Social Security card, but does list everyone for whom a lump-sum death benefit was paid. The basic database includes the person's date of death, Social Security number, and the location where the benefit was paid. These are useful bits of information. Living people aren't listed, and there will be nothing in the database if there was no death benefit paid, or if the death was never reported to the SSA.

The SSDI's biggest benefit to researchers, however, is probably in using its information as a key to unlock a more detailed source. Did you know that you can order a copy of the original Social Security Application Form (SS-5)? The SS-5 is a treasure trove of information, and contains:

  • Full name
  • Full name at birth (including maiden name)
  • Mailing address at the time of application
  • Age at last birthday
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth (city, county, state)
  • Father's full name (regardless of whether living or dead)
  • Mother's full name (regardless of whether living or dead)
  • Sex and race
  • Ever applied for a Social Security number of railroad retirement before? (yes/no)
  • Current employer's name and address
  • Applicant's signature and date signed

A copy of the SS-5 is only available to third parties if the individual has been reported to the SSA as deceased, so you don't have to worry that someone could get your information, but the process for making the request is simple. No surprise when dealing with a government agency, there is a form to complete, Form L-997, or "Social Security Number Record – Third Party Request for Extract or Photocopy." The SSA does not make the form available on line, but it can be ordered by calling 1-800-772-1213. The form itself is free, but there is a fee for the copy of the SS-5 - $7.00 if the Social Security number is known, $16.00 if it is unknown.


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      Duchess OBlunt 6 years ago

      Thanks - a great tip for us beginners.