US Social Security Access Policies Change

RB Stone SeatThe following Roots to the Past column was published in November 2011.

Genealogists searching for ancestors or extended family in the United States have access to Social Security Death Index (SSDI). It is one of the largest databases containing genealogical information in that country, and it used to be easy to obtain full records. However, full access to this databank and Social Security Number records has changed.

Limits were first placed on the information a few years ago. At that time, requests for persons born after 1940 had the names of their parents blocked. This was done to protect the parents in case they were still alive. Still, if death of the parents could be proven, then their names were released.

Recently, this limitation was extended for individuals who were born up to one hundred years ago. The same policy for proving the parents’ are deceased applies.

Obviously, there are flaws in this new ruling. Who would expect the parents of someone born 99 years ago to be alive? Still, death must be proven to access the full record.

The only reason many researchers request a copy of the original SSN card is to learn the name of an individual’s parents. This new rule makes accessing these records essentially useless. As one comment on a website noted, where is a person to find an official death record for parents killed during the holocaust? For that matter, how can one request death records from another country if that country is unknown?

The SSDI doesn’t contain the names of every individual even if they did have a Social Security number. Unreported deaths or deaths occurring before 1962 (when records were computerized) are unlikely to be found in the database. Not finding an individual’s SSDI doesn’t mean they are alive; it may simply indicate Social Security Administration is unaware of their death.

Not everyone could or did register for Social Security. Farmers, housewives, government employees, unemployed individuals and employees with separate retirement benefits prior to the 1960s may not have registered. In 1988, all children by law had to have a Social Security Number.

These numbers can often be found on death certificates. Before the 100-year limit, researchers making an “Application for a Social Security Number”, commonly referred to as SS-5, were able to uncover vital information such as an ancestor’s birth data (date and place, parents’ names, including mother’s maiden name). This can be extremely useful if the person was an immigrant and country of origin was unknown.

Data found in SSDI provide clues to help locate death certificates, obituaries, cemetery records and probate records.

Social Security cards were first issued on December 1, 1936. US workers began earning ‘credits’ toward their retirement benefits on January 1, 1937.

To learn more about requesting SSN, visit the FOIA – Freedom of Information Act website, or contact: Social Security Administration, Office of Privacy and Disclosure, 617 Altmeyer Building, 6401 Security Boulevard, Baltimore, Maryland 21235 USA. Photocopies of the original application for Social Security Cards cost $27 (with SSN) and $29 (without SSN).

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Diane Lynn Tibert is a writer based in central Nova Scotia. Her alter-ego is Diane Lynn McGyver. Her short story collection Nova Scotia – Life Near Water is available as an eBook at Amazon. It will soon be available in paperback.

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