Social Security Death Index

(SSDI) is an invaluable tool for the genealogy aficionados. The SSDI is an extremely important database that contains all the critical data about mainly deceased Americans and indexes more than 79 million people (and growing) who have filed for their social security numbers and received benefits from the same and their deaths have been registered with the Social Security Administration or SSA.

The inaugural year for social security was 1935 and the first payments were given out after 1 Jan 1937. Thus you will be able to locate your relatives if any of your relatives died in 1937 and after. You can search a vast combination of data depending on the amount of data you already have you will be able to narrow down your search to just a few branches. The contents of the SSDI are as follows:
Name ( for females use maiden names and married names to make your search more relevant)
Date of Birth
Date of Death
Residence (this will give you zip code, city and county)
Last benefit received

Everyone who filed for social security had to fill an SS-5 form and thus you will be able to locate some basic information from it and for obtaining a copy you have to contact the SSA. One of the problems is that you must know the full name of the person you are searching for that the person had during death that is for women who are listed by their married names of their current marriage.

Also make sure that you write the person you are searching for is “DECEASED” and you can provide a printout from the Social Security Death Index as proof because if that is not the case and you are looking up a relative who is alive you must not only sign this form but also get it attested by two witnesses. Another reason is that the SSA might deny you the information if the death of your relative has not been registered on grounds of the Freedom of Information Act provisions for unwarranted invasion of privacy.

One of the best things that the SSDI search can give you is a cross checking benefit. You may have gone to a particular site to look up a social security number and then you can check the information you receive with the SSDI database again. So it is not just for double checking but in a few cases you might find that certain details like a birth date or just one of the numbers, either the day, month or year could be different and it could be error in the database or sometimes you might find alternative birthdates because of the sources might differ.

In fact you could also land up finding some other information that you haven’t seen listed anywhere before like an unknown spouse or child. Now though it is a rare occurrence but you must have patience and persistence and who knows what the results might yield.

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Using The Social Security Death Index – Dick Eastman

The Social Security Death Index is a great tool for genealogists.
An awareness of its limitations can help a researcher to focus on what the index
can provide and to set reasonable expectations. The SSDI works best for finding
information about individuals who died in the mid-1960s or later. This index
is compiled by the Social Security Administration and is available at no charge
on a number of Web sites. The database presently contains more than 66 million
names and is growing as the Social Security Administration releases more information.
You can read articles about effective use of the SSDI in articles written by
Vince Summers at
and by George G. Morgan at

Keep in mind that not all deaths were recorded in the earlier
years. While the Social Security Administration was created by the Social
Security Act of 1935, the
SSA did not start computerizing their records
until the mid-1960s. You may occasionally find an earlier death listed in the
database because someone filed a claim in the mid-60s or later, seeking benefits
from the earlier death of a Social Security recipient. The SSA computers recorded
the new claim, along with pertinent information about the earlier death. This
death information eventually ended up in the Social Security Death Index. However,
the majority of deaths prior to the mid-1960s were never recorded in the computerized

Also remember that not all Americans were covered under the Social
Security Act in its earlier days. Railroad workers, teachers, and other municipal
employees often were covered by other retirement systems; therefore, the Social
Security Administration did not record their information.

Next, in the earlier days of the computerized records, the only
records tracked were for claims filed. If a person was not receiving benefits
and no claim for death benefits was ever filed, there was no reason to enter
that record into the computerized database. This would be true for many people
who died before their retirement years; no claims were ever filed.

In the past decade or so, there have been numerous changes to
these procedures. All known deaths of Americans are now recorded, regardless
of the person’s age, Social Security status, or death benefits paid. For instance,
if you scan through the Social Security Death Index nowadays, you will occasionally
see deaths of children listed. These children most likely were not receiving
Social Security benefits, and no death benefits were ever paid. However, the
Social Security Administration now automatically captures information about
deaths. As a result, you may find death records for many people within the last
ten years even though there are no comparable death records for twenty years
ago. You should also note that there are no plans to record such deaths from
earlier decades.

Finally, you might want to pay attention to the date of last update
of the particular Web site’s database that you are viewing. While the Social
Security Death Index is available on a number of Web sites, not all the sites
update their copy of the database regularly. The recent updates obviously have
recent deaths, but these updates also occasionally include information about
earlier deaths as well. Always check the date of the last update.

When writing this article in July 2001, I noticed the following:

In short, keep in mind that there are several versions of the
Social Security Death Index online, and not all of them are the same. You might
want to check several of them when looking for information about your ancestors.
Also, you can expect the SSDI to provide more information about recent deaths
than what you can find in its earlier records.

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How the Social Security Death Index Can Help your Genealogical Search by Paul Duxbury and Kevin Cook

Anyone who is interested in researching their family tree knows how wonderful it would be to have vital information on their ancestors available to them at the stroke of a key. The Social Security Death Index, a huge database compiled by the United States Social Security Administration, is a gold mine to be plumbed for genealogists searching for recent ancestors, and it’s only a computer disc or internet search away. It contains data on around 64 million people, the vast majority of whom are American, who filed for social security benefits and later died between 1962 and 1988. It also includes a smaller number of records dating back to 1937, as well as railroad retirement records from around 1900 to the 1950s. The database provides information on first and last names, birth and death dates, social security numbers and the states where they were issued, and the final places where social security benefits were sent. This information can help genealogists obtain birth and death certificates, employment information, and information on other relatives and ancestor. Like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, discovering one tiny bit of data can lead to a whole treasure trove of additional information.

As helpful as the Social Security Death Index can be to someone researching their family history, it can also be an incredibly tricky database to navigate successfully. Genealogists often execute a quick search and then give up when they don’t find the person they are looking for. Perhaps their relative died before 1962 or never filed for social security. Also, their relative’s death might never have been reported. It’s most likely, however, that the genealogists are not executing a successful search. Numerous errors–in the form of typos and missing information–were made in the early collection of social security information. Therefore, using the various search engines available to search the database is a time consuming, trial and error process. Knowing a few tips for using the database, however, can improve a genealogist’s chances of a successful search.

First, remember that less is more when it comes to searching for your ancestor using the variety of fields available to you. Unlike most search engines, it’s best to start with the least amount of information first so that one incorrectly entered field does not eliminate the person you are searching for from the results. For example, if you are searching for your Uncle Tom McMahon, use just two pieces of information, such as a last name and a birth date, to begin your search. Also, be aware of not only the variety of ways information can be entered into a search field but also the most beneficial ways in which to enter to the information.

For the “Last Name” field on the index, for example, try alternative spellings (i.e. McMahon or McMann), different punctuation options (i.e. commas in names like d’Angelo), and different spacing options, particularly for last names with prefixes or suffixes (i.e. McMahon or Mc Mahon). When searching for women, don’t forget to try maiden names as well as married names. Finally, if possible, use the “soundex” to search for last names in order to retrieve entries with obvious spelling errors.

If, on the other hand, you decide to search for your uncle by using his first name (in addition to another piece of information), your spelling has be an exact match with the spelling in the record. The index permits no room for error, so get creative. Try Thomas or Tomas, Tommy, the abbreviation “T,” or even a middle name.

If you already know your Uncle Tom’s social security number, then you can skip the aforementioned steps and type it directly into the search engine. If you not only know his number but also have proof of his death, you can order his social security application, a coveted piece of material that provides all sorts of interesting information about his family history. The first three digits of his social security number will also tell you the state in which his number was issued. If, for example, you think you know where your Uncle was living when he received his Social Security Number (but you don’t actually know the number), you could use that information to search the index, but you would have to be careful because some people receive their numbers from states in which they are not living.

If you don’t know your uncle’s social security number, but you do know his birthday, you can use that as well to search for him. Birthdays are tricky, however, because they are often entered incorrectly. Try searching the index using just the date, the month, or the year of his birth (remember, less is more!), and don’t forget to try searching for typos. For example, if he was born in 1902, you could search for people born in 1920 as well, just in case.

Finally, if you’re confident in your information, you could search for your uncle by typing in the zip code of his last residence or the individual who received his last benefit. Zip codes can’t be used to find early records, however, and a fifth of the records don’t list one at all. While it’s likely that a spouse or other next of kin would receive the last benefit, it can easily go to any number of people and is not as reliable a field to search with unless you have some reliable outside information.

In the end, don’t give up before you find your ancestor. The index is as tricky as it is valuable, and you need to use your creativity when typing information into the variety of fields available on search engines. You can also try different search engines to see if some have perks, like a “soundex,” that will make all the difference in your search for your family history.

About the Authors

Paul Duxbury and Kevin Cook own and two of the leading Genealogy Websites. In addition Paul owns a wide range of exciting websites which can be viewed at

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