I've been doing a lot of research lately looking for distant cousins. The research has centered around identifying people who are deceased, so that I can record the death information, and finding those that are alive, so that I can connect and share information. The main resource I have been using is the Social Security Death Index or SSDI.
The SSDI is a database created from the U.S. Social Security Administrations (SSA) Death Master File. It has over 87 million records (as of July 15) and is an essential tool for locating information on Americans who died after 1962. In 1962, the SSA began keeping electronic records, but did not go back and enter the earlier records. Some entries date before 1962, some as early as 1937, but these entries constitute less than 2 percent of the index. The SSDI includes most names of people who had Social Security numbers, but not all. If a person does not appear in the SSDI, do not assume that they are still living. The death had to be reported to the SSA to be listed in the index. This means that a person with a Social Security number whose death was not reported to the SSA, will not appear in the SSDI.
The information contained in the SSDI is:
The information included in the SSDI will help locate birth records, death records, obituaries and probate records. It also will give clues about the person's place of residence when they applied for a Social Security number, their last place of residence, and who received the last benefit. Even though not every entry has all the information and some information may be incomplete, there will be enough information to get you headed in the right direction.
There are numerous places online that offer free SSDI searches including:
The Stephen P. Morse Web site has a very useful one-step form which searches many free SSDI sites (http://stevemorse.org/ssdi/ssdi.html).
When searching the indexes, fill in only one or two fields, unless it is a common name, in which case, more information will need to be entered. Keep in mind when searching that there are mistakes in spelling and all dates may not agree with your information. Sometimes it takes creative searching to find what you need.
The SSDI is a great resource but it is just an index. The Social Security Administration has copies of original application forms, called SS-5. The information on the SS-5 changed throughout the years, but should contain the full name at birth (including maiden name), mailing address at the time applying, age at last birthday, date and place of birth, father's name, mother's name (including maiden name), sex, race, employer, employer's address, date applied and applicant's signature. All of the application information is not included in the SSDI, so it is worth sending for a copy of the original SS-5. A copy can be ordered from the SSA for $27 at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps9/eFOIA-FEWeb/internet/main.jsp. They can also be ordered by mail. Use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) form and mail to SSA OEO DERO FOIA, P.O. Box 33022, Baltimore, MD 21290-3022. Anyone can order a copy of the application for a person who is deceased under the FOIA.
Some people are surprised that the SSDI is still available to the public, because it includes personal information and we are all aware of the increasing problems with identify theft. However, it has been shown that keeping the index public actually prevents the theft of a deceased person's Social Security number. Employers, banks and other financial institutions need only check a Social Security number against the SSDI to see if the information was stolen from a deceased person.
For more details and search tips about the SSDI, check the "additional information" and "search tips" sections of the SSDI Web sites listed above.
The SSDI will not help with all your genealogy research since the records do not start until the 20th century. It will, however, be invaluable in helping research people who have died in the last forty-eight years.