Ancestry and the SS-5

SS CardYou may have noticed that Ancestry.com is now providing data from the Social Security Administration in addition to the Social Security Death Index that we all know and love.  This new information is coming from the Social Security Application (SS-5 form) and is a very welcome addition. However, there are still plenty of reasons to go to the source document.

Social Security Death Index

The Social Security Administration’s Death Master File, more commonly known to genealogists as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), has long been a useful tool for researching ancestors born from the later 1800’s forward.  In this index one can find birth dates, death dates and location of last residence for 94 million individuals.  With this information it was once a simple task to request a copy of the deceased individual’s original SS-5 form.  These were often filled out in the individual’s own hand and signed.

Social Security Application

Recently, Ancestry.com has created the U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 database which they describe as:

This database picks up where the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) leaves off by providing more details than those included in the SSDI. It includes information filed with the Social Security Administration through the application or claims process, including valuable details such as birth date, birth place, and parents’ names. While you will not find everybody who is listed in the SSDI in this database, data has been extracted for more than 49 million people.

Information you may find includes:

  • applicant’s full name
  • Social Security Number (SSN)
  • date and place of birth
  • citizenship
  • sex
  • father’s name
  • mother’s maiden name
  • race/ethnic description (optional)

You may also find details on changes made to the applicant’s record, including name changes [may indicate a marriage] or information on claims that were recorded.

This is a very useful database for finding many details about your ancestor.  For example, a search for Morris S. Harwood yields the following: 1

HarwoodWhile this is a great start on our research of Mr. Harwood, as good genealogists we know we should consult the original document to confirm there are no transcription errors or omissions.

SS5 Harwood

A review of the original Form SS-5 for Mr. Harwood2  reveals that Ancestry has omitted the applicant’s address and employer.  Neither are critical to Mr. Harwood’s identity, but they do tell us a little about his situation.  We learn that his mother’s middle name is May, and if we are really astute we may notice that they have incorrectly recorded her last name as Harlaw.  It is in fact Harlan.  This error could have sent us down the wrong line of research if we had only seen the index.

We also learn that he had a previous account number starting with a 7.  This means that he once worked for a railroad and there may be other records to find.

Why can’t I find the person I am looking for?

The requirement for the Social Security application was part of the Social Security Act signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on August 14, 1935.  If your ancestor wasn’t working or had retired by then, there will be no record.

As I noted earlier, this database contains information for 49 million people.  This is only about half of the names in the SSDI.  What cause a record to be excluded?  According to Ancestry:

You will not find living people. It is not an index to all deceased individuals who have held Social Security Numbers. It is not a database of all deceased individuals who have received Social Security Benefits, or whose families have received survivor benefits. Also, persons whose deaths were reported by the states rather than other institutions may not be included. This database contains basic information about people with Social Security numbers whose deaths have been reported to the Social Security Administration or who would be more than 110 years of age if still living.

For a complete description of this database visit: http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=60901

How do I obtain a copy of the original Form SS-5?

Complete information on how to file a Freedom of Information Act request for a Social Security application and fees may be found at: https://secure.ssa.gov/apps9/eFOIA-FEWeb/internet/main.jsp?action=SSA711_Instruction The fee when a SSN is known is $27.

Please Note: The SSA uses a “120 year rule” when disclosing information from their records for extremely aged persons when no date of death exists. They normally do not assume that an individual is deceased without proof of death (e.g., death certificate, obituary, newspaper article, or police report).
Also, under their current policy, they do not release the parents’ names unless they are proven deceased, have a birth date more than 120 years ago, or the number holder on the SS-5 is at least 100 years of age.

You must include proof of death for every individual listed on the form that would be less than 120 years old today.  These rules are a result of 2014 legislation aimed at preventing identity theft.

In summary: Ancestry’s U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 database is a useful tool for genealogists.  With 49 million individuals there is a good chance you will find some of your family members and possibly move your family tree back a generation.

  1.  “Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007,” database, Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com : accessed 17 December 2015), entry for Morris Harwood; Social Security Applications and Claims, 1936-2007.
  2. Morris Shipley Harwood, 329-05-3648, 1936, Application for Account Numbers (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Md.
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