Social Security Death Index

When you're unsure of an individual's date of death, head straight for the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). This large database compiled by the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) contains vital information for more than 87 million people (primarily Americans) whose deaths have been reported to the SSA.

What You Will Find in the SSDI

Once you locate an individual in the Social Security Death Index, you may find some or all of the following information: first and last name, date of death, date of birth, social security number (SSN), the state where the SSN was issued, the last known residence of the deceased, and the location where the last SSA benefit was sent.

What You Won't Find in the SSDI

The biggest mistake that researchers make when using the SSDI is in assuming that it is an index to all deceased individuals who have held social security numbers. That is not the case. It is also not a database of all deceased who have received social security benefits, or whose families have received survivor benefits. Instead the SSDI indexes individuals whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration, the majority of them after 1962 when SSA first computerized its processing of benefits. If a relative of the deceased or the funeral director did not report the death, or if the individual died prior to 1963, you probably won't find that person's name in the index.

How to Search the SSDI

The complete Social Security Death Index, current up to within the past few months, is available for free searching online on several different websites. A few sites require a fee for access, but their offerings are no better than the free versions. A good place to start is the handy search form by Steve Morse titled “Searching the Social Security Death Index in One Step” (www.stevemorse.org/ssdi/ssdi.html). It combines all of the desirable search features from the various SSDI websites into one easy search. Other free SSDI search options include RootsWeb (http://ssdi.rootsweb.com) and American Ancestors (www.americanancestors.org — look under “Free Databases”).

Locating a particular individual in the large SSDI database, especially if you aren't sure when and where this person died, can be an exercise in frustration. Be sure to take advantage of all the search features available to you, and try different combinations of searches.

  • Search by last name or first name only, in combination with other known facts such as date or year of birth and state of last residence. The first name in combination with the exact birth date, or month and year of birth, often produces results.

  • Search for women under both their married name and their maiden name.

  • Enter an initial in the given name field.

  • Omit the zip code because this field does not exist for earlier records.

  • Try alternate spellings in the name field, making use of wildcard operators when available.

  • Order a Copy of the Social Security Application

    With the name and social security number from the SSDI, you can request a copy of your ancestor's original application for social security, otherwise known as Form SS-5. This form was completed by individuals applying for a social security number and asked for information that is of great value to genealogists, such as parents' names (including the mother's maiden name), date of birth, employer, and, later, the place of birth. The fee to receive the Social Security Application Form is a bit steep, but well worth it if you don't already know the information that the form often provides.

    The Social Security Administration offers online ordering of photocopies of Social Security Number Application SS-5 forms. A link to the application form with current fees can be found in their Guide to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests (www.ssa.gov/foia/html/foia_guide.htm).

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