Understanding RootsWeb's Social Security Death Index

by Joan Young

One of the things that made RootsWeb famous was the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). When it was first added to the site around 2000, it was free, was updated more frequently than any other online version, and was accompanied by the best search engine. Today, RootsWeb continues to be one of the most convenient and effective places to access this index. How much do you know about the SSDI and how long has it been since you used it?


In 1935, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, providing Social Security benefits to all eligible citizens. Participants were given a Social Security number to identify them.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) keeps a record of all individuals who have a Social Security number and whose death is reported to the agency. This information is recorded in the SSA's Death Master File.

The SSA doesn't publish the Death Master File; it sells the database to others (including RootsWeb) who make it publicly accessible and searchable. Various companies offer the SSDI online but each formats the data differently, updates at different intervals (RootsWeb updates ~monthly), and employs its own search engine. Therefore, not all SSDIs are equal—even though the information is derived from a single source.

The SSDI was not created to assist people in genealogy, but it has become a valuable genealogical resource.


If you are looking for information on someone from the U.S. who died after 1962 (the year the SSA began digitizing its records), the first place to start is the SSDI.

Most people in the index are from the U.S., but a few Canadians, Mexicans, and individuals of other nationalities are in the index. Some Americans who worked or died abroad may also be found in the database.

Some individuals who died before 1962 can be found in the SSDI as well.


Among the reasons why someone might not be included in the SSDI are the following:
  • The death was not reported to the Social Security Administration (SSA).
  • The death was recent and the person has not been indexed yet.
  • The individual did not participate in the Social Security program. (Not everyone was required to have a Social Security number until 1988. Before then, farmers, housewives, government employees, unemployed people, and those with other retirement programs may not have had Social Security numbers or participated in the Social Security program.)


RootsWeb boasts a full-featured SSDI search engine with advanced search capabilities that enable researchers to find individuals with a minimal amount of information.

A simple search allows you to enter the last name, first name, middle name or initial, and/or Social Security number.

You may enter as little or as much information as you know. You may search the last name using either the exact spelling or by selecting Soundex or Metaphone. Soundex and Metaphone are "sounds like" search tools and were previously explained here.

The Advanced Search feature offers additional fields to search: last residence or last benefit (zip code, state, county, city), births and deaths (year, month, and day), and location where the Social Security card was issued. Be careful when entering information on the last residence and last benefit; they do not necessarily represent the place the individual was living at the time of death.

The RootsWeb SSDI search engine supports the asterisk (*) as a trailing wildcard where at least the first three letters are known. For example, "Rob*" will find all names beginning with Rob and containing zero or more additional letters. Enter "402*" in the field for zip codes and the search engine will search for any zip codes beginning with 402.

[For the morbidly curious (like me), here is an explanation of the internal source codes you occasionally find in the "Last Residence" field that do not represent a location.]


Once you have located someone in the Social Security Death Index, you can order his or her SS-5 form (the form filled out to apply for a Social Security card). Among other information, the SS-5 form contains complete birth information (date, city, county, country) and the maiden name of the individual's mother.

To order the SS-5 form from RootsWeb, click the "SS-5 Letter" link on the search results page. Fill out the request form that appears, print it out, and mail it to the SSA. It costs $27.00 to order an SS-5 form.


If you find incorrect information in the SSDI, report it directly to the SSA.

You can also add Post-em Notes to entries in RootsWeb's SSDI to indicate inaccuracies or give your connection to an entry. To do this, click "Add Post-em" on the search results page for an entry.


To learn more about the Social Security Death Index, you may want to check out these additional resources on RootsWeb:

(Posted 14 September 2008)

Previously published in
RootsWeb Review: 13 August 2008, Vol. 11, No. 18. H
CS readers can view other genealogical articles and releases in our extensive, permanent archives at the URL http://www.hellenicomserve.com/archivegenealogy.html. For more information about genealogical methodology, especially in researching Hellenic ancestry, see especially the main genealogy page or the section about Hellenic Historical and Genealogical Association at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/hhga.html.

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