Ordering the SS-5

Ordering applications from the SSA

Reader Janet Buchanan is helping a friend, now in her 80s, with a major conundrum: wading through too many names for her paternal grandparents.

The friend’s father had one sibling and “between the two of them on the birth, death and marriage certificates there are many different sets of names,” Janet wrote. “So, we want to send away for their Social Security applications to see what names they have listed there.”

The father died in 1958, the aunt in 1981. And what Janet and her friend want most to know is 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-5.1 The example below is my grandfather’s SS-5 form from 19372:

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).”3

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 reports4 — 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.”5

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

And if you happen to get a redacted version of the SS-5 anyway, whether from the online system or by mail, 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.


  1. See generally Pamela Boyer Sayre, “The SS-5: Application for Social Security Number,” Social Security Sleuthing, About.com Genealogy (http://genealogy.about.com/ : accessed 30 May 2013).
  2. Clay Rex Cottrell, SS no. (withheld for privacy), 22 June 1937, Application for Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
  3. Make a FOIA Request,” Social Security Administration (http://www.ssa.gov/foia/request.html : accessed 30 May 2013).
  4. See Kimberly Powell, “Social Security Administration Removing Names from Public Death Master File (aka SSDI),” About.com Genealogy (http://genealogy.about.com/ : accessed 30 May 2013).
  5. Ibid.
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37 Responses to Ordering the SS-5

  1. Sometimes it pays to also order the Numident printout of the SS-5, the computer printout from SSA’s database. In the online Social Security Sleuthing course on NGS, there is an example of a woman whose Numident and original SS-5 showed different information. One had another of her married names, date she applied for Social Security, and somewhat different facts than on the SS-5 she filled out. For anyone interested in learning more about Social Security, take a look at the National Genealogical Society 5-lesson course at http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/socialsecurity_sleuthing.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Now if I could just get the SSA to find my grandmother’s SS5 instead of just her Numident

  2. Thank you for showing us the way through this particular hallway of the bureaucracy! Such very important information for genealogists. I wonder why they chose 120 years . . . to encompass all possible lifespans? Hm.

  3. Sidney Levesque says:

    I’ve had success ordering SS5 for other relatives. I was wondering if it would be worth the $29 expense to order an SS5 for my great great grandmother even thought her 1947 death certificate said “none” under Social Security number. Is it possible she applied and wasn’t granted a number but they might still have an application?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Possible yes. But you’d have to consider if it was likely. Did she work at all outside the home? Many people who didn’t, didn’t bother to get SSNs that early.

  4. Renee Stern Steinig says:

    Thanks for the excellent advice on the “appeals process” to avoid redaction of parents’ names. It took two months and one followup email for the SS-5 to arrive… but I’m delighted to have it.

    The 120-year rule brings to mind an old Yiddish expression, “May you live until 120 ,” used to wish someone a long life. The reference to “120″ may come from this passage in Deuteronomy: “And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.”

    I guess the folks at the SSA know their Bible! :-)

  5. Kathleen Craine says:

    Thanks for this helpful information. Also, what information is included in the NUMIDENT computer extract? Are parents’ names included?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It is supposed to be an extract of all of the information, except the signature, contained on the original SS-5 application, Kathleen. That being said, I have seen Numidents that do not contain the parents’ names and because I could only get the Numident (the original SS-5 having been lost, misplaced, etc.), I don’t know if the parents’ info was on the SS-5.

  6. Karyn says:

    Has anyone ever ordered the SS-5 without a name? I have a social security number that I think may be my greatgrandfathers. Can I order an SS-5 with just a number?

  7. Alexander says:

    Hi !
    I am from Israel but I can’t fill israely address(inly for US recidence)in ssi form
    What can do ?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If there’s no way to fill in the online form with your information, you’ll need to download and send the request by mail.

  8. Alexander says:

    Hi ! thank you for answering.
    My great grandfather was born in 1879 in Russia and emmigratted to US in 1904.
    1. How I can sure that he had SS number ?
    2.if ss number didn’t exist would I pay ?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You may not be able to find out for sure without asking for a record check. You can see if his name is on the Social Security Death Index (there are several versions published online, the one at Mocavo (at http://www.mocavo.com/Social-Security-Death-Index/246389?) is a good choice). But many people who did have Social Security numbers never were recorded on the death index, for a variety of reasons. If you do ask for a record check, and the check determines there is no application (no SS-5 form), there will not be a refund of the amount paid. It’s a fee that pays in part for the record check, not just for the record.

  9. Alexander says:

    Thank you .
    I ordered to address my relatives.
    My last question : Can I find certificate of birth my great grandfather that was born in Russia in 1879,emmigraited in 1904, in US database ?
    May be he translate it and submitted to US archive ?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s no way to know without checking all possible US records of events where he may have needed a birth record. He would not need it to get a Social Security number that long ago, but if he was ever naturalized or obtained a US passport or applied for a land homestead, it’s possible. There won’t be any one central place to look, however.

  10. Alexander says:

    Hi !
    3 weeks ago I filled form and paid.
    Still I have not receive nothing.
    I have Agency Tracking ID number and Pay.gov Tracking ID.
    Which way I can check my status ?
    Thank you.

  11. Alexander says:

    How do you know that it takes so long period ?I didn’t find nothing information

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It’s a matter of experience, Alexander: many of us in the US order these records and we know from experience how long it takes. Be patient; it takes months, really.

  12. Alexander says:

    thank you Judy.
    Can I check my status order online ?
    I have searched I have not succeeded.
    Sorry I am not from US and English not the main language spoken

  13. Alexander says:

    But this link for The USCIS Genealogy Program processes Index Search Requests (G-1041) and Record Requests (G-1041A)……
    I ordered SSA-711 (Request for Deceased Individual’s Social Security Record)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      My apologies. You’re right: I gave you the wrong link. There is NO information online about checking the status, and no standard way to request a status of a request for information from the Social Security Administration.

  14. edward w wright says:

    Hi I live in the U.K., can you tell me how to apply for a copy of a deceased relatives ss-5. All the app. forms seem to assume residence in the U.S. and payment to be made in dollars.
    Can apps. be made from outside the U.S. ?
    best regards Edward.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s no bar to ordering an SS-5 by a non-US resident but it certainly isn’t going to be easy. Unless you can place your order entirely online using a credit card, you’re probably going to have to deal with a bank draft — or getting a friend or relative in the US to order it for you.

  15. Alex says:

    Hello !
    At 26 august 2014 I sent request to SS-5 and paed.
    Still I haven’t got nothing.
    My relative called and leaves message.
    But still nothing.
    How Can I check request status ?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      This question has already been answered: there is no way to check the status online. Requests take up to SIX MONTHS to fill. Your order was only two months ago.

  16. Linda Money says:

    If a person was married more than once when they applied for social security benefits, they can choose which spouse to claim benefits from. Is there a way to find out the names of multiple spouses to choose from?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Not that I’m aware of, and with the restrictions the Social Security Administration is imposing on data, I doubt that you could get that information even with a Freedom of Information Act request. At a minimum, you’d have to prove that everyone involved was already deceased.

  17. Nick Cimino says:

    Judy- I met you at an evening round table discussion in Salt Lake City in January 2015. Thank you for the suggestions for further research on my great grandmother from the Sacramento orphanage.

    My question on the SS-5 is whether there is any exemption from the redaction of parents if you can show relationship. The letter from Social Security says that they “do not disclose to the ‘public’ personal information from our records.” But what if the person of record is a parent and the names of his parents would be grandparents? Are direct descendants considered “public”?

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