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Social Security Death Indexes Online


by Cliff Lamere     1 Nov 2005



There are many versions of the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) available online, most of them available free to the public.  I have found six versions that have slightly different features and search capabilities.  I make some comparisons below.  


The SSDI will not include persons who died before receiving SS benefits, nor those SS recipients that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has not learned about.  


Who Supplies the Social Security Data to these Websites?


The Social Security Administration learns about the death of many Americans when the funeral home sends them a notice of the death of the person.  They may receive their information in other ways as well.


The data is used in many ways by financial and other institutions.  "By methodically running financial, credit, payment and other applications against the Death Master File, the financial community, insurance companies, security firms and state and local governments are better able to identify and prevent identity fraud.  The USA Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001), requires an effort to verify the identity of customers, including procedures to verify customer identity and maintaining records of information used to verify identity."  


Access to the Death Master File requires a subscription fee.  There is almost no difference between the SS Death Master File and the SSDI.  The NTIS (National Technical Information Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce) and SSA are working together to provide this information.  The fact that some of the online SSDI sites are not up-to-date may be because of the fee for updates.



ROOTSWEB  - has a very searchable SSDI.  It is kept up-to-date.  Its reporting of the Last Known Residence is slightly more accurate than for the other sites (see Comment that follows).  I like the Advanced search for difficult cases or to reduce the number of hits.  Displays 20 hits at a time.  This was my favorite SSDI until recently (see Stephen P. Morse below).


In the SSDI information supplied by the Social Security Administration, only a zip code is given for Last Known Residence.  Various SSDI sites take the zip code and try to convert it into a
location.  A zip code area might include several hamlets, a village or two, and much rural area that could only be described as being in a certain Township (Town).  All but one SSDI website list only a single location for that entire zip code area.  That means that a wrong last place of residence is listed for a large percentage of the people listed in the Social Security Death Indexes found online.  And that leads to wrong information in our genealogical records.


RootsWeb has a slightly more accurate presentation of the residence information than do the other SSDI websites.  They list the zip code, then supply the location in parentheses.  They used to tell you that the residence location was uncertain, which is how I learned about the problem.  I didn't find that statement on their site recently.  



STEPHEN P. MORSE  - has developed software that can retrieve data from six online SS Death Indexes (because they don't all have the same features).  He calls it ROOTSWEB PLUS.  I like it a LOT, but haven't use it much yet.  It has the look of the RootsWeb site, but Mr. Morse has made seven improvements to the search options of the RootsWeb search engine. The only thing he adds to the usual data reported by RootsWeb is the age at death.

Read his explanation of what he is doing and the features the SSDI sites have.  Found only recently, this site will probably become my favorite after I work with it a bit.  I like the fact that his display of the records has the format of the RootsWeb site, but allows me to display more than 100 records at a time.


In October 2005, there were no records for 2004 or 2005, nor for part of 2003.  Displays 10 hits at a time.  Reports age at death which other sites lack.  I'm impressed with the fact that it does so accurately.  When a person was born and died in the same month, and when only the month and year of death were listed, it accurately reports two possible ages at death.  Reporting of residence appears to be accurate.  For some hits it only reports the zip and state, meaning that when it reports the zip and a city and state, it might know that the person actually lived in that location.  I like this site except for the fact that it is not up-to-date.


I don't like any of the following sites for the SSDI records.

1)  FAMILY SEARCH, the LDS site - Displays 200 incomplete records at a time.  Contains records for 2005. 
They list the last residence known as follows:

"Death Residence Localities [a heading]
     ZIP Code: 65656 
     Localities: Galena, Stone, Missouri"

The first and last lines are misleading.  From the word "Localities" a person would expect to find more than one place.  The zip code seems to encompass both Galena and Stone, Missouri (two localities).  However, what it means is Galena, Stone Co., Missouri.  This problem exists for most records.  I did find a record that lists four locations for zip code 87124, so I now understand what the label means.  Many beginners who do not find such an example may not understand the meaning.  


The heading "Death Residence Localities" creates another problem.  When only one locality is listed after "Localities," some beginners will record the death as being at that location.  That will not be true if they died in a hospital in another locality.


The site does not display the complete data for a person until you click on the person's name.  Other indexes display the complete data on a single line without the extra step.  If you are recording SSDI information for all people with a certain surname, this site would make it very difficult to do that.  I am studying all members of a single surname with many spelling variations.  I make lists of all members of the surname.  I want to collect 200 names at a time, not just one.  For me, this is not a useful site.

This site's data would be fine if you are looking for only one person at a time, but only if the misleading heading and label are changed.  


2)  GENEALOGY.COM (Family Tree Maker)  - May not have been updated since 1997.  Includes the state of death for some people, which is not available in other SSDI databases I have used.  Reports the Last Known Residence inaccurately (see Comment above).  Displays 10 hits at a time. 


3)  NEW ENGLAND HISTORIC GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY - Contains records for 2005.  Displays 15 names at a time.  Last Known Residence reported inaccurately (see Comment above).


4)  ANCESTRY.COM has the SSDI (kept up-to-date), but it shows only the person's name and the county and state of the last residence. You have to subscribe to see the rest of the data.  Ancestry owns RootsWeb where you can see the data free.



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