SSDI: The fat lady sings

SSDI to be closed for three years

They say it isn’t over until the Fat Lady sings.

Well, the Fat Lady of the 113th Congress belted out the last bitter off-key note in the song of public access to the Social Security Death Index at 4:28 p.m. yesterday.

fatladyThat’s when the United States Senate voted 64-36 to pass a budget deal that includes — as a purported revenue-enhancing measure — a provision that closes off access to the Social Security Death Master File (known to genealogists as the Social Security Death Index or SSDI) for three years after an individual’s death and takes access to such information out of scope of the Freedom of Information Act as well.

The vote sent the budget package to the President’s desk, and he’s expected to sign it, most likely today.

The Legal Genealogist isn’t going to rehash all the reasons why this provision — sold to the Congress as a measure that would save up to $60 billion in fraud by preventing identity theft and the filing of false tax returns (it won’t) and will raise up to $500 million in new revenue by requiring those who do get access to the information to pay for a certification program (that may end up being true) — is just plain dumb. You can read more about it in past blog posts.1

Or, if you want to understand better why this is so dumb right now, there’s a great piece by Leah McGrath Goodman in Newsweek that really tells the tale: “The Deathly Flaw Buried in the Budget Deal.”2

And I’m not going to get into the questions of what our community may need to do down the road to try to reopen access for the members of our community for whom this bill is a deadly blow — those who work with military repatriations, for example, and other forensic genealogists. That’s a matter for the folks who do that sort of work to grapple with before anything more is said or done.

For now, there are just a few things I want to emphasize — all part of the practical aspects of this bill and what it means for the day-to-day genealogist.

• First, the portion of the bill that takes this information out of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act takes effect immediately when the President puts pen to paper. That means that, starting immediately, FOIA requests for “information on the name, social security account number, date of birth, and date of death of deceased individuals maintained by the Commissioner of Social Security”3 of people who’ve died in the three calendar years before the request will be denied. So don’t waste your time sending in tons of requests for SS-5s on your recently-deceased relatives.

• Second, the portion of the bill that bars the Secretary of Commerce from providing the Death Master File, or SSDI, data takes effect in 90 days. Once it kicks in, deaths will not be listed until the end of the third calendar year after an individual’s death. That means, for example, that the death of a person any time in 2014 will not appear in the SSDI until 1 January 2018.

• Third, there is nothing in the bill that makes these provisions retroactive — meaning nothing that would force people and entities that already have lawful access to the data today to give it back or stop publishing it or stop allowing others to access it. We don’t yet have official word from Ancestry, FamilySearch and other entities that have SSDI data online as to their view of the effect of the law on deaths in the last three years. (Note that both already redact the Social Security numbers of persons deceased in the last several years.) But even though it doesn’t look like the law requires them to remove any part of the information they’re making available today, we can’t be sure it won’t be read that way. So we all ought to gather all the information we might need from online databases on our recently-deceased relatives right now.

And here’s the one thing that really pains me to have to say:

• Bad as this is, it could get worse.

The problem is that there are still members of Congress who want to see public access to the SSDI ended entirely.4 This budget deal may just embolden them to push on. And so we have to stay vigilant on this.

Stay tuned…


  1. See Judy G. Russell, Category: SSDI, The Legal Genealogist, posted various dates.
  2. Leah McGrath Goodman, “The Deathly Flaw Buried in the Budget Deal,” Newsweek, posted 18 Dec 2013 ( : accessed 18 Dec 2013).
  3. §203(d), Amendment to H.J. Res. 59 Offered by Mr. Ryan of Wisconsin, PDF at 32, U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee ( : accessed 11 Dec 2013).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “Johnson: into the sunset for SSDI,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 23 July 2013 ( : accessed 13 Dec 2013).
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17 Responses to SSDI: The fat lady sings

  1. Donna Brown says:

    As always, I appreciate your educated but logical and common-sense approach to explaining things in your blog.

  2. Charles Hansen says:

    Thanks for the information, I went to a seminar on E-File for accountants a few weeks ago by the IRS and the speaker says that the IRS now has about 3000 people working on nothing but identity theft and fraud and so along with the modernized E-File they started a couple of years ago they are getting much better at finding the fraudulently filed returns.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The IRS is doing a much better job of fraud prevention — so much so, particular with respect to the returns “filed” by deceased persons, that this whole SSDI business is really a matter of “fixing” a problem that no longer exists in this form. Very frustrating!

      • Kenneth H. Ryesky says:

        “Much better” is, of course, a relative term; I shall not now get into trying to evaluate it on an absolute scale. What will be noted, however, is any recent improvements in the IRS’s efficacy were brought about through public embarrassment in the halls of Congress and the resulting Congressional pressure, and not on account of any basic system specifications designed to protect anyone other than the purported tax return filer.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          No argument from me as to what brought this about, Ken. The IRS wasn’t exactly stepping up to the plate voluntarily.

  3. Dave Robison says:

    I’m not a computer programmer, but common sense tells me that it couldn’t be too difficult to run the SS#’s of all claimants through the SSDI. You get a hiot, youtear up the check! Sorry about mentioneing “common sense” in the context of a government program….I got ahead of myself there!

    By the way, here in Massachusetts, you can’t even get an annual safety inspection sticker on your car if you have any little issues like unpaid parking tickets or unpaid child support!

    • Mary Caroline Chunn says:

      Unpaid child support is not a little issue.

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        Clearly it’s not a little issue at all. But our elected representatives never looked beyond the “maybe we can save some money here and raise some money there” before adding this silly provision to the law.

  4. Mary Jane says:

    Of course, we need to consider that the worst programmers in the world work for the United States Government!

  5. Barbara Stern Mannlein says:

    In the last 18 months I have spoken personally with at least 12 Senators and Representatives about this issue.

    NOT ONE of them was familiar with any aspect of it. It seems as if their interns and office staff are the ones reading and making decisions on how they should vote. SAD…. but that’s how we got Obamacare!

  6. Christopher Schuetz says:

    This issue is not being highlighted in the appropriate forums: humour, song and TV fiction. It needs to be on Saturday Night Live, in a rap song (“Now we can’t bury Grandma for three more years” although that sounds more like country), or as part of crime shows to present the issue to law-and-order citizens.
    The important positive effect of the measure as it stands as a defence against zombies is probably also worth highlighting. Don’t tell me zombies don’t exist, I saw them on TV! (LOL)
    The important thing is to engage–like many of your columns, the facts are illustrated by story.

  7. Skip Murray says:

    Sigh………. :(

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