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Using the (USA) Social Security Death Index

The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter (Vol. 6 No. 31 - July 30, 2001), and is copyright 2001 by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author.

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 http://www.ancestry.com/library/view/news/tip/3764.asp and by George G. Morgan at http://www.ancestry.com/library/view/columns/george/895.asp.

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 database.

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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