Using the Social Security Death Index

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is an enormous database of death records compiled from the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File.  This version of “SSDI” — not to be confused with Social Security Disability Insurance — contains information about most U.S. citizens who have passed away since the early 1960s.  While the Death Master File is hidden behind a paywall, anyone with an internet connection can access the SSDI for free through many genealogy websites.

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How to Use the SSDI

The Death Index is an absolutely sprawling data source, encompassing no fewer than 89 million records which are updated on a weekly basis.  The Death Index culls data from 1935 through the present, with approximately 95% of all deaths in the United States reported to the SSA.  However, information regarding persons who died before 1962 is extremely limited.  Most entries come from the second half of the twentieth century and later.

There are at least three websites where you can access the Social Security Death Index for free, including Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and GeneaologyBank.com (though you may need to create a user account to access some services).  To search through the Death Index, you’ll be prompted for information such as:

  • The name you’re searching for.
  • The date and location of the person’s birth and death.
  • Any keywords you’d like to enter.

And that’s it!  It’s a very simple process, though some of the data fields vary slightly from website to website.

What Information Can You Find in the SSA Death Index?

Once you’ve found the records you’re looking for, you’ll be able to access the following information:

  • The person’s Social Security Number (SSN).
  • The state where the person’s SSN was originally issued.
  • The person’s date of birth and date of death.
  • The last place the person was known to be living.
  • Whether the person received a lump sum payment through the SSA.

In accordance with Section 203 (“Restriction on Access to the Death Master File”) of the Budget Act of 2013, information for individuals who passed away within the past three years is not made available to the public.

Perhaps more important than the information itself is what you can do with the information you’ve obtained.  With the records you’ve uncovered, you will potentially be able to:

  • Get a death certificate by supplying the person’s date and location of death.  Once you have the death certificate, you may also be able to find funeral records, mortuary records, or church records of personal or financial interest.
  • Locate and connect with distant family members.
  • Track down any land records which may be in your family.

finding the facts evidence magnifying glass

Social Security Payment Errors

The SSDI has proven invaluable to countless geneaologists, historians, and medical professionals conducting long-term clinical studies.  However, it is not without its flaws, and many have criticized the Death Index for enabling acts of fraud and identity theft.

Notably, as recently as 2013 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that the Death Index was a significant contributing factor to incorrect payments made by the SSA, which brings us to a good question: what should you do if you think the SSA has made incorrect payments to you?

If you suspect that an error has been made, whether it’s an over-payment or an under-payment, you should immediately call the SSA help line at (215) 701-6519.  The line is staffed Monday through Friday between the hours of 7 A.M. and 7 P.M.  Remember, the SSA is constantly bombarded by phone calls, so showing a little bit of patience and respect can help get your problem resolved that much quicker.

Of course, you’ll need to be able to review your records in order to find any potential mistakes.  To obtain a copy of your social security statement, simply visit your social security account (or create a new one) on the secure official SSA website.  You must access your records online, as the old option to request paper documentation via Form SSA 7004 has been eliminated.

To check your statement for accuracy — which is always a good idea, since the SSA is estimated to make errors on over 3% of its records — you need to compare your tax return or your pay stubs against your statement.  If there’s a discrepancy between the two sets of numbers, it is reasonably likely that the SSA made an error, and is worth looking into.

It may feel tempting to keep your mouth shut if you notice over-payments, but it’s a costly risk that will only hurt you in the end.  Not only could the SSA penalize you financially, you could even find yourself facing fraud charges.

If you or someone you love needs help filing for SSDI or SSI, or if you’d like to appeal a claim which has been denied, the Pennsylvania social security attorneys of Young, Marr, Mallis & Associates can help.  To set up a free and private consultation, call our law offices at (609) 755-3115 in New Jersey or (215) 701-6519 in Pennsylvania.  We also serve the residents of New Jersey.

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