The growing interest in genealogy has attracted a great many people searching for information about their ancestors. Finding out about how an ancestor lived might begin with learning as much as you can about when, where and how the person died. The Social Security Death Index is an excellent place to being your research.
Fact one: The government has a Death Master File
The Social Security Administration maintains a database containing information about anyone with a Social Security number whose death was reported to it since 1936. The database is the Death Master File. According to the agency, its records contain death information on approximately 96 percent of individuals older than 65 years of age who died since 1973.
The government sells the information in the Death Master File to commercially available websites to offer to the public as the Social Security Death Index. A search of the death index can reveal the following information about a deceased individual:
- Full name including middle initial
- Date of birth
- Date of death for deaths occurring after 2000, and month and year of death for individuals who died before 2000.
- Social Security number
- State in which Social Security number was issued
- The zip code of the last place person lived before his or her death
If the Social Security Death Index has information about someone in its database, you can request a copy of the original application for a Social Security number that was filed by or on behalf of the deceased person. The application, known as Form SS-5, could contain information, such as the deceased person's place of birth and the names of his or her parents, which might be helpful for someone doing genealogy research.
Fact two: The government fights identity theft by releasing Social Security numbers
It might come as a surprise to know that a search of the Social Security Death Index will give you the Social Security number of the person whose name appears in the index. Banks and credit card companies use the information from the Death Master File to cross-check the Social Security numbers of applicants for credit cards, loans and other financial transactions to identify individuals who try to commit identify theft by using the Social Security number of someone who is deceased.
The government discovered the best method of preventing people from using Social Security numbers of the dead is to make the numbers and other information about the deceased individual public. Such data is also available directly from the government through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Fact three: Social Security Death Index records may contain errors
The data contained in the Death Master File and in the commercially available Social Security Death Index are not free of errors. The government revealed that thousands of people have been incorrectly identified as being deceased when they were very much alive.
Another issue that has arisen about the Social Security Death Index involved the inclusion of data obtained from death records maintained by state governments. As of 2011, state records are no longer used as a source for the Death Master File or for the Social Security Death Index.
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