Introduction: In this article, Katie Rebecca Garner gives tips for finding and using an important resource for genealogy: the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.
This is a database of people with Social Security numbers whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Background of the SSDI
The Social Security Act came into law in 1935 and millions of U.S. residents applied for and received Social Security numbers between 1936 and 1937. Beginning in 1989, parents could automatically obtain Social Security numbers for newborns upon registration of birth certificates.
The Social Security Death Index is a database of people who had a U.S. Social Security number and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration. Most of the deaths in the SSDI are between 1962 and 2014. There are some entries for people who died between 1937 and 1961.
Due to privacy restrictions enacted in March 2014, entries more recent are not publicly available. The SSDI contains many, but not all, deaths in the U.S. between 1962 and 2014. The concentration of available deaths is highest after the late 1980s. While not complete, the SSDI is the closest thing the U.S. has to a national death index.
Information in the SSDI
Deaths in the SSDI may have been reported by a surviving relative who was requesting benefits, or to stop Social Security benefits to the deceased. Some funeral homes report deaths to the SSA as a service to the family.
If an ancestor was alive in the 20th century or later, and you don’t know when they died, searching for them in the SSDI can be a good way to find the death date. If you are having troubles finding your ancestor, try different spelling variations, using initials, and reversing the first and last names. Also try reversing digits of the dates.
Family history facts you can find in the SSDI:
- Name of deceased individual
- Date of birth
- Date of death
- Age at death
- State & zip code in which the Social Security card was issued
- Last known residence
- Location of last benefit
The death date and last residence can be helpful in obtaining the ancestor’s death certificate. All the information in the SSDI can be used to obtain the ancestor’s Social Security application form (SS-5), which contains even more genealogically valuable information, including the birthplace.
Case Study: SSDI in Action
When I was researching an ancestor who changed his name from George Obermeier to Oscar Boneck, I applied a methodology of attempting to disprove the name change. Failing to disprove the name change would ultimately prove it. One angle of this was to search for the death of George Obermeier. I began by searching his name in the SSDI. Because of user corrections, Oscar Boneck appeared in some of the search results. I focused on the other results, which were men who died under the name of George Obermeier. I used the information in the SSDI entries to find their death certificates. Half of these death certificates proved to not be the ancestral George Obermeier. For the other half I looked for additional records until I had proved the others were not the ancestral George Obermeier either. Having proved that all these dead George Obermeiers were not the ancestor I was looking for, I failed to disprove the name change at this angle. This was one of multiple angles applied to try disproving the name change, and the SSDI was a boon in this part of the approach.
The SSDI is my go-to resource when I need to know the death of any ancestor who lived past the 1930s. It might also help you as you search for your ancestors.