Genealogy: Researching the Social Security Death Index

Social Secuirty CardBy Barry J. Ewell

The Social Security Act (Act of August 14, 1935) [H. R. 7260] was created as an attempt to limit what was seen as dangers in the modern American life, including old age, poverty, unemployment, and the burdens on widows and fatherless children. By signing this act on August 14, 1935, President Roosevelt became the first president to advocate federal assistance for the elderly. The Act provided benefits to retirees and the unemployed, and a lump-sum benefit at death.

Search the Social Security Death Index
You might want to start by checking out the Social Security Death Index which is available online from a variety of commercial services (usually the search is free). The Death Index contains a listing of persons who had a Social Security number, who are deceased, and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration. (The information in the Death Index for people who died prior to 1962 is sketchy since SSA’s death information was not automated before that date. Death information for persons who died before 1962 is generally only in the Death Index if the death was actually reported to SSA after 1962, even though the death occurred prior to that year.)

What you will find in the Social Security Index
When you are searching for the Social Security Death Index, it is helpful to know at least two of the following pieces of information:  1) The name of the deceased 2) Place where the death occurred and the approximate date of death. The index can include the following pieces of information:

  • Name of the deceased (Married women are usually listed by their married name.)
  • Birth date
  • Death date
  • State or territory where the Social Security number was issued
  • Death residence, zip code and corresponding localities (This in not necessarily the place of death, it is the last place of residence that the Social Security Administration has on file.)

How to use the information found on the Social Security Death Index
When you locate your ancestor’s record, you can use the information to

  • Death date and place.  Use the information to locate a death certificate which may also lead to finding mortuary, funeral, and church records.
  • Birth date or age. Use this information to find your ancestors birth records and names of birth parents. This will be helpful in finding records
  • Residence. Use this information to find family members, church and land records.
  • Birth date or age and place. Use this information to locate you ancestor in the census.

Tips for searching the Social Security Index
The following are a few lessons I learned while searching the index..

  • Married women. Married women will be listed under their married name.
  • Death place. Death place can either be the place of death or the last place of residence on file at the Social Security Administration.
  • When two geographical divisions listed. When two geographical divisions listed such as Jefferson, Texas it stands for Jefferson County, Texas not the City of Jefferson in Texas.
  • Using zip codes. Using zip codes from the last residence can help locate the town.
  • Information reliability. Information reliability in the index is usually very good but is based on who provided the information.
  • When you can’t find family. When you can find family in the index, try searching on variant spellings of surnames.
  • Only deceased persons reported. Only deceased persons reported as being deceased to Social Security are included. Note: The information in the Death Index for people who died prior to 1962 is sketchy since SSA’s death information was not automated before that date. Death information for persons who died before 1962 is generally only in the Death Index if the death was actually reported to SSA after 1962, even though the death occurred prior to that year.)
  • Surnames longer than 12 letters are truncated to 12 characters. If you can’t find the name start your search over using only the first 12 letters of the  name.
  • Always search for other family members. Always search for other family members which will help you build a better profile of searching the “family.”  I make it a practice to search for the mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

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