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Ordering applications from the SSA

Yesterday’s blog post about what may and may not have been recorded in an application for a Social Security number — the SS-5 form — prompted a rash of questions about ordering the form, how to do it, and what the risks are. So today The Legal Genealogist repeats this post, originally posted in 20131 with a few extra caveats tossed in for good measure.

The original inquiry, in 2013, asked for guidance in exactly what to order from the Social Security Administration, how to order it — and “whether we will spend the money and get nothing.”

What to order

The form you want to order from the Social Security Administration is generally known as an Application for a Social Security Number — the Form SS-5.2 The example below is my grandfather’s SS-5 form from 19373:

Whether it’ll be worth it

From the very beginning of the Social Security system in 1935, the form required a number of key pieces of information, including:

     • First, middle and last name
     • Present mailing address
     • Age at last birthday
     • Date of birth
     • Place of birth (including city, county and state)
     • Father’s full name
     • Mother’s full maiden name
     • Race or color
     • Date and signature

At various times, an applicant may have also had to specify his or her full name at birth, including maiden name if a married female, the name of the current employer and employer’s address, and other information.

Getting a copy of this form is almost always worth it. The information on the SS-5 form was usually provided by the applicant, and so is often the best source of information about what the applicant knew about his or her own birth and parentage.

The worst you’ll get is information supplied by an employer that filled out the form from its employees’ records and had them sign it — which adds another layer of possible human error, or the lie the applicant told for whatever reason. In my family, for example, a cousin of my father’s listed her grandparents as her parents to avoid having to admit that she’d been born out of wedlock. But even that information is worth having.

How to order it

To order a copy of an applicant’s SS-5, you need to make a formal request under the federal Freedom of Information Act using Form SSA-771. And you can do that in one of two ways: online and by mail. Which method you choose should depend entirely on when the applicant was born and died.

Here’s why:

First of all, you can only get a copy of an SS-5 form for a person who is deceased. The living all have a right of privacy that the government recognizes in the information supplied on the form. So you must be able to prove that the person is dead.

As of 2011, the Social Security Administration (SSA) changed its privacy policy and now declares that it “will not disclose information about any person in our records who is under 120 years old, except in those cases where we have acceptable proof of death (e.g., death certificate, obituary, newspaper article, or police report).”4

Generally speaking, the SSA has in the past accepted the fact that the person’s name appears on the Social Security Death Master File (what we know as the Social Security Death Index or SSDI) as proof that the person is deceased. But since 2011 not all deaths have been included in the public version of the SSDI — that’s when the SSA stopped including deaths from protected state death reports5 — and it’s just not clear anymore whether the SSA will look to its own records instead of the public version to determine whether someone is deceased.

So with newer deaths, deaths of younger persons, and as to anyone whose name you can’t find in the public SSDI, you may well need to supply proof of death and that can’t be done using the online system.

Second, under that 2011 privacy policy change, the SSA has made it harder to get the very information most useful from the SS-5 forms: the date and place of birth and the names of the parents. Here’s what the SSA says now: “under our current policy, we do not release the parents’ names on an SS-5 application unless the parents’ are proven deceased, have a birth date more than 120 years ago, or the number holder on the SS-5 is at least 100 years of age.”6

In a large number of cases, people who have ordered SS-5 forms since 2011 have found the copies they receive have had the names of the parents redacted (blacked out) and even on occasion the date and place of birth as well.

To avoid that, you need to provide evidence that the parents are deceased, or that they would have been born more than 120 years ago, unless the person whose SS-5 you’re ordering was born more than 100 years ago. And, again, there’s no way to attach that proof in the online system.

So even though the online ordering system is faster, the only time it really makes sense to use it any more is where (a) the person whose form you want was born more than 100 years ago and (b) you’re darned sure that there aren’t any Social Security records showing the parents were under age 20 when the person was born. If you’re sure about both of those facts, then it’s safe to make the request using the online SSA-771 form even if you don’t have an exact date of death or proof of death (for the person or the person’s parents).

In all other cases, you should probably download the SSA-771 form and send it in by mail with your supporting evidence. The address for mailing is:

Social Security Administration
OEO FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Greene Street
P.O. Box 33022
Baltimore, Maryland 21290-3022

There are lots of ways to prove your case that may carry the day with the SSA. I’ve personally used some combination of the following in a number of cases:

     • An obituary of the person saying the parents predeceased the person
     • Death records of the parents
     • Tombstone photos
     • A census record showing the ages of the parents

If you get a redacted record

Whenever you get a redacted version of the SS-5 anyway, whether from the online system or by mail, you don’t have to take no for an answer. You can appeal the decision to redact it and send in the additional evidence to the address provided in the letter that accompanies the redacted version.

There’s no formal process for an appeal: just write a letter explaining why you think the information should not have been redacted, and include every bit of evidence you can think of. Be nice, be professional — but don’t just accept the decision. It’s very common for an initial redaction decision to be overturned.

If you never get a record you paid for

This has happened more than once, and a fellow genealogist said just yesterday that it had happened to her: she’d sent in a request, the check had been cashed… and she never got anything from the SSA.

And that’s one thing you should never simply accept. Once a reasonable amount of time has passed since the check was cashed — 90 to 120 days — you need to do something.

First, write to the SSA again at that Baltimore address. Enclose a copy of the cancelled check or proof that the check was cashed (a print-out of your online bank info, for example). Give the SSA a reasonable time — say, 30 days — to provide the missing document and make it clear you will continue to press the issue.

If you don’t hear back at the end of that time period, write again, but this time write directly to the office of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Right now, the acting Commissioner is Carolyn W. Colvin. I’d probably send it in care of the Office of Public Inquiries at:

1100 West High Rise
6401 Security Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21235

And in that letter, I’d do the same “please respond within 30 days” and enclose all previous correspondence.

And after that time period, it’s time to go to your member of Congress. Every member of Congress has a constituent affairs officer — somebody whose job it is to keep the home voters happy. Write to your Congressional member (names and addresses can be found here — enter your zipcode and then click on the icon to go to that Congress member’s website for contact details).

Government officials tend to respond — quickly — when members of Congress get involved. Maybe the SSA types will ignore us — but it won’t ignore the people who authorize their paychecks.


 
SOURCES

  1. Judy G. Russell, “Ordering the SS-5,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 31 May 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
  2. See generally Pamela Boyer Sayre, “The SS-5: Application for Social Security Number,” Social Security Sleuthing, About.com Genealogy (http://genealogy.about.com/ : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
  3. Clay Rex Cottrell, SS no. (withheld for privacy), 22 June 1937, Application for Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
  4. Make a FOIA Request,” Social Security Administration (http://www.ssa.gov/foia/request.html : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
  5. See Kimberly Powell, “Access Restrictions to Social Security Death Index,” About.com Genealogy (http://genealogy.about.com/ : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
  6. Make a FOIA Request,” Social Security Administration (http://www.ssa.gov/foia/request.html : accessed 5 Jan 2016).
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