How to Access the Social Security Death Index: Step-By-Step

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For many, keeping track of your family’s history and records is a meaningful way to piece together your ancestry. The Social Security Death Index is a database specifically for death records within the United States. This database was created using the Social Security Administration’s list of deaths since 1973, and it’s an important resource for many families across the country. 

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Built from the Social Security Administration’s “Death Master File”, this is an accessible way for genealogists and families to learn more about past loved ones. It’s also a common tool for clinical trials, medical research, and epidemiology since it has important medical data relating to deaths. 

However, there's a lot of confusion surrounding the Social Security Death Index. Who has access to it, and what information can you find on it? There are a lot of things to know about this research tool. In this guide, we'll share how to access and navigate the Social Security Death Index.

What Is the Social Security Death Index? 

First, what is the Social Security Death Index? In simple terms, this is a list of deaths in the United States. It was created using the United States Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. When someone dies, their death should be reported to the Social Security Administration, as it is one of the main places to notify after a death

What is the Death Master File?

With that in mind, what is the Death Master File? The Death Master file, or DMF for short, is a digital database that has been a part of the Social Security Administration since 1980. While it includes more specific information regarding deaths that occurred after 1980, it also includes any deaths reported to the Social Security Administration from 1962 to the present. 

The Death Master File is protected under the Freedom of Information Act, which means its information is available to the public. The DMF finds most use among research groups, medical centers, genealogists, and so on to help them better understand vital death-related data. 

How is the Social Security Death Index accessed?

Because this list is sold by the National Technical Information Service within the U.S. Department of Commerce, it’s common for everyday people to access this database through ancestry websites. You can find this index for free on some tools, but you also might need a paid subscription. 

Other than using an online ancestry tool, you can also request a public file of death information from the National Technical Information Service (NTIS). These are available for purchase, but it’s often easier to use an ancestry tool. 

Who’s Allowed to Access the Social Security Death Index?

There’s a lot of mystery around who is allowed to access the Social Security Death Index. In reality, under the Freedom of Information Act, the data found in the Death Master File is publicly available, which in turn deems it a public document. It’s updated weekly and monthly, and this information is used in several different ways. 

That being said, access to the full list is limited. You need to be certified if you wish to access the Limited Access Death Master Filme through the Social Security Administration. Who is certified to access this information directly?

  • Healthcare facilities
  • Insurance providers
  • Genealogy organizations
  • Financial institutions

These organizations have to prove they have strong security and privacy protocols to adhere to federal guidelines. These certified organizations and groups are listed publicly on the NTIS website for public review. 

What Information Can You Find on the Social Security Death Index?

On the Social Security Death Index, you can find key information about the deceased. While not all information might be available depending on what the Social Security Administration has, the data includes:

  • Given name and surname
  • Date of birth
  • Month and year of death 
  • Social Security number
  • State where the Social Security number was issued
  • Last place of residence of the deceased
  • Lump-sum payment (death payment)

From there, once a specific person’s record is found within the database, more information can be requested through the Social Security Administration. By requesting their application for a Social Security card, requestors can get other genealogical data:

  • Birthplace
  • Father’s name
  • Mother’s maiden name

Because so much identity data is found on the Social Security Death Index, there has been some criticism about whether or not it’s secure. In the early days of the Death Index, the Social Security number wasn’t a huge part of personal identity. Today, this number is virtually used for everything, from legal to financial forms. 

As explained above, this information is listed publicly through the Freedom of Information Act. However, the limit of available information is a way to prevent fraud at a federal level. Once numbers are listed on the index, they are no longer able to be used for financial or legal purposes, therefore limiting fraud and identity theft.  

Are All Deaths Listed on the Social Security Death Index?

Another important question is whether all deaths are listed on the Social Security Death Index. While most modern records are comprehensive and accurate, this isn’t true for years past. In reality, the Death Index is a relatively new idea, and it’s only been digitized within the past few decades. 

Many people are surprised to learn that the Social Security Death Index is not perfect. While its records have been kept since 1962, the index also contains information on people who were born between 1937 and 1961. However, these records are less likely to be accurate or complete. 

If someone is not listed within the Social Security Death Index, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily still alive. On the other hand, some names are also listed in error. In fact, in 2011, a 3-year audit revealed that around 36,000 people were mistakenly listed as deceased on the Social Security Death Index. Ultimately, the Social Security Administration does not guarantee the accuracy of its database.

Is It Free to Search the Social Security Death Index?

While it is currently free to search the Social Security Death Index, this is something you will need to do through a third-party service. Though you can’t access the Death Master File, you can access the Social Security Death Index through a genealogy website. 

Most genealogy websites require you to purchase a paid subscription or membership to search the Social Security Death Index. However, some offer free trials or limited information. You can usually do a basic search (by last name) without needing any paid account. The good news is this is a very accessible index, and the information is publicly available for those who search for it.

Steps for Searching the Social Security Death Index

If you’re ready to search the Social Security Death Index yourself, it’s easy to get started. You don’t need to be related to the deceased or have any special qualifications. To search, use the steps below. 

1. Identify key information

To begin, you need to know some key information about the deceased. While you don’t need to be a relative, you do need to know important information about them. This will guide your search. The more information you know, the easier it will be to find the data you’re looking for. 

What do you need to know? The Social Security Death Index search uses the following data points:

  • Full name
  • Birthdate (or year)
  • Death date (or year)
  • City of death
  • Social Security number

While you don’t need to know all of the above, every piece of information helps. If you only have their name, for example, you might need to go through many records to find the individual you’re looking for. The specific search criterion depends on the platform you use. 

2. Choose a genealogy tool

Next, choose an online genealogy tool. These are the easiest platforms for navigating the Social Security Death Index. There are a lot of options you’ll find online, but some of the most common are:

Once you’ve chosen a tool, determine whether you need a paid account. At the very least, you will need to register with the service of your choice. It’s often possible to sign up for a free trial which is a good choice if you only need to search once. 

3. Begin your search

From there, start your search. You will need to enter as much information as you have about the person you’re looking for. Once you search, you’ll be brought to a page with a list of results. Depending on the tool, these will be listed by year, location, or name.

The more information you include, the fewer results you’ll have. If you’re unsure of any key information, it could be a good idea to request a copy of their death certificate first. This is a vital record that’s only available to specific family members, but it has all of the details you will need to launch a successful search. 

4. Narrow your results

Last but not least, narrow your results. Once you see the one you’re looking for, investigate it further. Keep in mind that not all data points may be included in the result, particularly for a death long ago.

It’s possible that specific data points were never entered for some individuals, and this means the record might be incomplete. In addition, if someone has passed within the past 10 years, their Social Security number is typically hidden for security purposes. 

Tips for Searching the Social Security Death Index

Starting your search can be confusing and intimidating, especially if this is your first time seeking information about someone in your family. These tips below will help you have a more effective and efficient search no matter which tool you use:

  • Alternative spellings: If you’re not having success with a specific name spelling, try a different one. A lot of families run into trouble with names that include punctuation, for example (‘O’Connor’ vs. ‘Oconnor’). 
  • Double-check: Always double-check any records with existing records or documents. Comparing birth, death, marriage, or census records can help you make sure you have the right data. 
  • Nicknames: Though not common, some names in the death index are nicknames or abbreviated names. 
  • Simple: If you’re not having luck with larger amounts of information, try just searching by the first name and date of death. 

If you can’t find a specific death in the Social Security Death Index, this is likely because the death wasn’t reported to the Social Security Administration. You still might be able to request a copy of their original Social Security Application if they were enrolled. This document has greater information than the Social Security Death Index. 

Discover Information from the Social Security Death Index

In conclusion, the Social Security Death Index is a public database that features most deaths from 1962 onwards. However, this index is far from perfect. Not only does it receive criticisms for clerical errors and fraud, but it can also be difficult to search. 

Luckily, by following the steps above, you can easily discover what you’re looking for. You will need to use a genealogy platform to begin your search, but there have never been more tools at your disposal to create your own family tree. Loss can be difficult, but understanding your family story helps ease this burden. The Social Security Death Index is a small but important piece of the bigger puzzle.


Sources:
  1. “Cases of Mistaken Death Reports Low But Costly.” Office of the Inspector General. SSA.gov
  2. “Limited Access Death Master File.” NTIS. NTIS.gov.
  3. “Requesting SSA’S Death Information.” Social Security Administration. SSA.gov. 
  4. “The Social Security Death Index.” Ancestry Support: Search and Records. Ancestry.com

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