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What is it about genealogists and the SSDI?

Posted by on in Legislation Federal
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The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is the public face of the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (DMF), opened to the public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The SSDI is only 60% as large as its parent, the DMF. Different federal agencies have access to one or the other in the course of performing their duties. For example, the IRS has full access to the DMF but Homeland Security and the Justice Department are only permitted to see the reduced SSDI.[1]

One of the biggest causes of the difference in size between the two files is the November 2011 redaction from the SSDI by the Social Security Administration of 4.5 million deaths, 2.5 million of them in Florida, a red-hot zone for consumer identity theft.[2]

Genealogy websites providing access to the SSDI also redact some information from the file. The subscription websites voluntarily stopped including social security numbers of the recently deceased.[3]

The SSDI is the work around used by genealogists because death records are now closed in nearly every state. Commissioner of Social Security Michael J. Astrue said that that genealogists were “over-reacting“ during his testimony February 2, 2012, before the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. My thanks to Michael John Neill, who clipped the Commissioner’s testimony from the full hearing video.

People searching for their ancestors and relatives use the SSDI daily. If they have a person’s birth date and name, they search to see where across the vast United States that person may have lived at his or her death. Once they know when and where, they can seek obituaries (not every family pays for one), gravestones (not every family puts one up; only a fraction of tombstones are listed online), or death records (if they are lucky enough to be in a state where they are available). It is important to have more than just a name in order to match a death date with a person. Including the person’s birth date is critical to establishing identity. Genealogists often request the Social Security Administration’s individual application form, the SS-5, because it includes the applicant’s birth information and the names of his or her parents.

Genealogical use of the SSDI goes beyond the simple scenario of looking for names and dates to fill in pedigree charts and family group sheets. Although the hobby of genealogy is pursued by 80 million Americans,[4] it receives little or no respect from the U.S. Congress. No genealogist has ever been permitted to testify at a hearing regarding the SSDI. Melinde Lutz Byrne, at that time President of the American Society of Genealogists, sat in the hearing audience when Commissioner Astrue uttered his remarks. Her in-person testimony was banned by Chairman Sam Johnson.

Here are some of the efforts genealogists make – for the public good – using the SSDI.

  • The Unclaimed Persons volunteer initiative supports county coroner’s offices. “It's a quiet but disturbing epidemic. People are going to their graves with no family to claim them. Medical examiners and coroners' offices—frequently overstretched with burgeoning case loads—are turning to an unexpected resource for help. Over 400 genealogists are now offering their volunteer services to help locate the next of kin for unclaimed persons. And it's working. To date, more than 400 cases have been solved through this unusual partnership.”
  • The Department of Defense’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command finds our missing heroes, identifies their remains, and brings them home. Genealogists work as contractors to find relatives who qualify as the Primary Next of Kin, and as DNA donors for comparison. “The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s mission is to conduct global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts in order to support the Department of Defense’s personnel accounting efforts. Employing nearly 500 joint military and civilian personnel, JPAC spans the globe in search of unaccounted-for Americans.”
  • Genealogists work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for tribal councils in their recognition process and to verify applications for enrollment; and for individuals seeking services that are their rights as Native Americans.[5]
  • Genealogists work for probate courts and missing heir firms seeking the next-of-kin of those dying intestate.

  • Genealogists work with geneticists to establish patterns of disease in order to qualify families for genetic testing, and then to track down family members at risk of genetically determined disease.

  • Genealogists work with historic commissions to trace house histories, and to assemble community information.

  • Genealogists work on community reconstruction to trace the dead in unmarked cemeteries, particularly slave cemeteries.

  • Genealogists work with antiques dealers or owners to track provenance.

Kenneth H. Ryesky, Esq., shared even more uses for the SSDI:

  • A landlord's proof that a rent-stabilized tenant has died and the premises are no longer subject to the tenant's artificially low rental rate.[6]

  • Evidence to support an actual innocence claim of a capital murder defendant has included the DMF/SSDI.[7]

  • Identity theft fraud in an automobile finance scam has been established using the DMF/SSDI.[8]
  • Courts take judicial notice of deaths shown on DMF/SSDI.[9]

  • In North Dakota, the SSDI has specifically been accorded legislative imprimatur as a valid means of reasonable inquiry for giving notice of lapsed mineral interests.[10]

Genealogists aren’t the only people using the SSDI for the common good. The Federal Trade Commission’s Red Flag Rules mandate that corporate entities check the SSDI. For small family-owned firms or mom-and-pop stores the SSDI versions on genealogy websites have been the easy way to meet those rules.

The bipartisan budget compromise now before the U.S. Congress will make more redactions from the SSDI. Ninety days from approval, all information (name, birth, death, residence, and social security number) for recent deaths will be removed. They will once again become public at the end of the calendar year following the third anniversary of the death. This means that a death on 4 July 2014, will not appear in the SSDI until 1 January 2018. An alert about this was issued to the members of the Massachusetts Genealogical Council last week. Its text is available here.

UPDATED: 16 December 2013, 12:56 PM with Kenneth Ryesky's additions.

The photograph is courtesy of the U.S. National Archives, where it is labeled, "Group of newsies selling on capitol steps. Tony, 8 years old, Dan, 9 years old, Joseph, 10 years old, John, 11 years old. Washington, D.C., 04/11/1912."

[1] David A. Farenthold and Todd Lindeman, “Sometimes it pays to be dead,” The Washington Post, posted 3 November 2013; ; viewed 13 December 2013.

[2] National Technical Information Service, “Important Notice,” : viewed 16 December 2013. The changes are fully explained in Steve Danko’s post, “Changes to the Public Death Master File (DMF) and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI),” Steve’s Genealogy Blog, posted 1 November 2012; : viewed 16 December 2013.

[3] Anonymous, “Social Security Death Index Redactions,” The Ancestry Insider, posted 11 April 2012; : viewed 16 December 2013.

[4] Mike Richman, “Technology, Word of Mouth Help Genealogy Hit the Mainstream,” Voice of America, posted 26 September 2013; : viewed 16 December 2013.

[5] Barbara J. Mathews, Answers to Questions from the School of Government at the University of North Carolina, 4 November 2013, Board for Certification of Genealogists; <>: viewed 16 December 2013.

[6] Matter of PWV Acquisition LLC v. Division of Housing and Community Renewal, 2007 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 9137, 2007 NY Slip Op 30623(U) (Sup.Ct., N.Y. Co. 2007).

[7] Newman v. Norris, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60142 at *5 (W.D. Ark. 2008).

[8] Bank of America, N.A. v. Hempstead Auto Co., Inc., 2012 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2730; 2012 NY Slip Op 31531(U) (Sup. Ct., Nassau Co. 2012).

[9] Kudasik v. Nicholson, 2007 U.S. App. Vet. Claims LEXIS 1438 (U.S. App. Vet. Claims 2007) (Court took judicial notice of death of appellant); see also State v. Wiggins, 2010 Del. Super. LEXIS 310 (Del.Super. 2010) (court, sua sponte, checked SSDI to verify death of crime victim).

[10] N.D. Cent. Code, § 38-18.1-06(6)(c).

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Barbara serves as the Federal Records Director. She is a Board-certified genealogist who works for the Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America as a Verifying Genealogist and for the Welles Family Association as a Genealogist. Her volunteer service includes a stint as President of MGC. She holds a master’s degree in the management of non-profits from the Florence Heller School at Brandeis University. You can read her own blog, The Demanding Genealogist, at


  • Barbara Mathews
    Barbara Mathews Wednesday, 18 December 2013

    Skip, feel free to share, just give credit where it's due, as I know you will. Also feel free to use this blog post as an article in your genealogy society newsletter. Researchers need to know what is NOT in the SSDI. That Washington Post infographic is helpful in that regard. You might post its URL to your group's site.

    It is great working with the lady of Occupy Genealogy. Skip, thank you for your advocacy over the years.

  • Guest
    Skip Murray Monday, 16 December 2013

    Good Job Barbara!!!! Is it OK to print this and send it to my Senator's and Representatives?

  • Guest
    Sharon Sergeant Tuesday, 17 December 2013

    Skip, go right ahead! Sharon Sergeant, Vice President MGC

  • Guest
    Michael E. Pollock Monday, 16 December 2013

    I agree wholehearted with the praise of this article, not just in echoing point I made in articles I have posted at LinkedIn, AreaInfo and elsewhere, but also in citing specific examples that I had not included in my posts. However, critics of access to these records as well as the general public need to be aware that this information does not include either: 1)the overwhelming majority of deaths occurring before the addition of Burial Benefit, as most surviving family did not apply for the benefit retroactively and such occupations as farm laborer and household workers were not originally included (I recall the year as 1963 as that was the year I moved to a farming community and there was considerable "grousing" by the local farmers about the paperwork required as a result in what had largely been a "cash economy"), or 2)many of those who died after eligibility rules for collecting of that burial benefit were changed to restrict it to surviving spouse or parent. I've not been able to find specific citations with regards to the actual date for the inclusion of farm and household workers or the terms of the latter restrictions, thus am at a loss to explain why my father, who died in 1995 now appears in the index when I know for a fact that my mother did not apply for the benefit (having divorced my father, she was NOT eligible to receive the benefit) and I included this kind of information in Pollock Potpourri, a surname-specific periodical I published on a quarterly basis until December, 1999!

  • Guest
    Bernie Couming Monday, 16 December 2013

    Kudo's to Barbara Mathews, et al, as continuing guardians of access to our Public Records. How can this tiny corner of the public record eke its way into the new compromise National Budget which only is able to treat a fraction of the total national budget but has time for nonsensical record redactions… to whose budgetary concern?

  • Guest
    Linda Robbins Monday, 16 December 2013

    Excellent article, Barbara Mathews! Thank you for bringing these details to our attention. Also, thanks to Thomas MacEntee, on Facebook, for linking your article, on his Facebook page.

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