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 http://www.amateur-genealogist.com and http://www.our-family-trees.co.uk two of the leading Genealogy Websites. In addition Paul owns a wide range of exciting websites which can be viewed at http://www.our-family-trees.co.uk