SSDI access now limited

Budget bill bans public access for three years

Yes, the budget bill was signed into law.

No, there wasn’t any Christmas miracle.

Tombstone_cgbugYes, the language that eliminates public access to the Social Security Death Master File — also known as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) — for three calendar years after an individual’s death was in the budget bill when it was signed.

No, nobody crossed out the language exempting the SSDI information from the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The budget was signed into law on Thursday of last week, December 26th. It includes that dratted closure of the SSDI and the exemption of SSDI information from FOIA, sold to Congress on the flimsiest of threads — as a purported revenue-enhancing measure.

The argument was that it would save up to $60 billion in fraud by preventing identity theft and the filing of false tax returns (and it won’t) and that it would raise up to $500 million in new revenue by requiring those who do get access to the information to pay for a certification program (and it might raise at least some portion of that amount).

So where does that leave us, here on what we can all hope is the last bad-news-day of 2013?

Here’s the big immediate impact, and it’s from the fact that the FOIA exemption took effect the minute the budget bill was signed: genealogists should not — I repeat, we should not — order SS-5 forms (requests for issuance of a Social Security number) for anyone who has died in the last three years.

The FOIA exemption means that all 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” of people who’ve died in the three calendar years before the request will be denied. So there’s no sense in wasting our time or money sending in tons of requests for SS-5s on recently-deceased relatives.

The second big effect will be to stop reporting new deaths on the SSDI, and while the law says it won’t take effect for 90 days from the signing of the law — or 26 March 2014 — it’s unlikely that any updated version of the SSDI will be available from now on until three calendar years have passed from the date of any individual’s death.

As of today, existing SSDI data that’s online is remaining online. No online service provider has indicated any intention of pulling any information that’s already available. But new information won’t be available for some time.


Here’s to a happier New Year… we hope.

Image: adapted from user cgbug, Open ClipArt Library

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44 Responses to SSDI access now limited

  1. Jennie says:

    Yawn, not much new or accurate in this headline. (Is writing misleading headlines an art or a science?) The law doesn’t take effect until 26 March 2014, FamilySearch is still showing the same results it showed before the passage of the bill, so what does “*now* limited” mean??

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Just as a hint, you might try reading the blog post. I don’t mean to be flippant, but seriously… the day before the budget was signed, you could have gotten the SS-5 of a person who died in the last three years. The minute the budget was signed, you couldn’t. The removal of SSDI-type information from the purview of the Freedom of Information Act is a very substantial change, and it’s already taken effect.

  2. Thank you for the update. It’s interesting that the freedom of information act is so named.

    To protect Identity Theft we might consider that open and full access to the SSDI, fully available to businesses and other concerns, could be a deterrent. Did Curt Witcher say something like that?

    I appreciate your post and am adding you to my FeedSpot, today!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’m sure Curt, a very smart man, has said something along those lines — and much more. You would think that using the SSDI to make sure that no credit is extended or tax refunds issued in the name of someone already dead would be the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, our government doesn’t seem to get it, at all.

  3. Kenneth H. Ryesky says:

    Much of the language of the statute was lifted from the Chairman’s Discussion Draft in the Senate Finance Committee []

    The Finance Committee staff released a Summary of the Discussion Draft [] which (1) invites public comments by 17 January 2014; and (2) specifically “recognizes that various parties without obvious legitimate interests, such as forensic or genealogical researchers, may have a legitimate need for immediate access.”

    What now needs to be done is to make the case to the Senate Finance Committee that some genealogical researchers actually do have a need to access the DMF/SSDI.

    Possible bump in the road:

    A. By the time the 17 January 2014 deadline arrives, Finance Committee Chairman Baucus will not be Finance Committee Chairman Baucus, he will be Ambassador Baucus. There will be a change in Committee leadership (the name of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has been floated, but is not yet a sure thing). What this does to the Discussion Draft effort remains to be seen.

    So read the Discussion Draft and the Summary, and get your comments in. Make the Case for Family Research. Explain why it is important; get beyond the “feel good” argument. The Finance Committee has given us an opening to maybe at least get some genealogists on board for early access.

    – Ken Ryesky

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I hope you’re sending this along to RPAC as well, Ken!

      • Kenneth H. Ryesky says:

        I am a member of RPAC, and this has been discussed extensively.

        Independently of RPAC (but with some informal discussion and coordination), have already submitted comments in my personal capacity; they reflect my own professional interests as a tax attorney and, while addressing in depth the DMF/SSDI issue, they also extend to other matters of tax administration.

        That commentary, submitted 9 December 2013, is available at [].

        – Ken Ryesky

  4. Carrie says:

    About a year or so ago, I sent for a copy of an SS-5 form. I knew the date of birth and death but not the parents’ names. They sent me a copy with the names of the parents blacked out. Just the only thing I wanted!

    This person was born in 1919 and died in 1970. The reason I was given in a letter for the black-out was they couldn’t be sure the PARENTS were still ALIVE or not! Really! A person born in 1919 whose parents could still possibly be alive. I don’t think so!

    So take note of what you want. They can’t do the math.

  5. Dan W. Olds says:

    This article says
    “No online service provider has indicated any intention of pulling any information that’s already available.”
    Perhaps that is true of recent changes but RootsWeb pulled the SSDI at an early hint of trouble. Their SSDI was free and had my favorite interface. I was sorry to have to find another source.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The RootsWeb SSDI service, being a free and non-subscription service, was particularly singled out by the anti-genealogy community as a source of problems (not true, but…). Ancestry, which now owns RootsWeb, moved all of the SSDI information behind the subscription wall to ease the public relations crisis.

  6. Billie Walsh says:

    It could be worse. We have to wait seventy-five years for a census. They could have put in even bigger restrictions. Or even closed access completely. Three years. I’ve spent longer than that searching for just one ancestor, and some I stll haven’t found. At least the glass is better than half full.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Absolutely true for most of us, Billie — we’re more interested in people who died 300 years ago than three years ago. But not true for some small segment of the genealogical community: the forensic genealogists. Think, in particular, the folks who work with military repatriations, coroners’ offices, attorneys needing to find heirs and the like.

  7. Bobbi says:

    Everyone would have been better served if the law mandated the IRS, Credit Bureaus, Banks etc. to use it before dispensing money or enabling credit.

  8. Henry says:

    Just means that if someone obtains the SSN of a deceased individual he probably has 3 years of use. IRS doesn’t even use the SSDI. I received a mis-addressed quesry for information from the IRS on a tax return. First name was not mine but last name was…I opened it because I was having IRS issues at the time and wanted to make sure the inside name was not mine. Using the personal info inside, I determined the individual was deceased and provided the IRS with the information as to his last known address.

  9. Judy Burns says:

    I am a family historian and also work as an oil & gas landman. At work we depend on the SSDI in order to locate mineral owners and/or their heirs. If oil companies suspect that they are paying proceeds to someone who may be deceased, they have no way to check that now. Not for three years anyway. My daughter uses the SSDI at her job with a title company. Those who live in fear seem to have been in control when this law was written.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It was sold as more of a revenue measure than an anti-fraud measure, if you can believe it. This will make life difficult for a lot of people — and it won’t even touch the big problem of identity theft since the numbers the thieves want are the numbers of the living, not the dead.

  10. Elissa Davey says:

    I founded the non-profit Garden of Innocence. Our sole purpose is to provide dignified burials for abandoned and unidentified children. I have also been a volunteer forensic genealogist.
    Caring for these children has shown me how many adults have been abandoned and awaiting next of kin. There is an epidemic of abandoned adults bodies in this country that most aren’t aware of.
    When I try to start a new Garden of Innocence, the first thing the coroner is hoping for is that I’ll help with the indigent adult dead.
    I wish I could, but there are too many and my funding is hard to find.
    With the passage of this bill there will be more adult bodies piling up in county morgues, more cremations at county expense, more land bought at county expense because the county potters field is full and more county money spend for burials because this bill will not allow coroner’s office to research the adults SSI to find and notify the next of kin.
    Right now the county morgues have upwards of 200-400 cremains in their vaults on hold, including children, waiting for mass burial.
    The cost this bill will effect each county in the United States is extreme as the coroners will have no access to information to place these bodies in their loved ones hands.
    Thinking this bill will help decrease fraud is so not true. People who commit fraud will know another way.
    This bill will only cause more taxpayers money to be spend trying to clean up the mess this bill has caused.
    Just ask a Coroner!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for that information, Elissa. These are real people being affected by this… let’s hope the coroners join the fight and explain why this is Bad Law — in capital letter.

  11. Edward Monroe says:

    Thanks for STUPID! I was using this site to see if my dad is still alive. He has cut off all communication. Any idea I can use to find out when he goes boots up? I really don’t want to have to wait three years. Don’t know where he is living anymore.

  12. Robert says:

    Frankly, this might be good, or at least for those who have good state death index. Too many people use the SSDI as fact of death location. It only states where the check (or electronic transfer) was made. My Parents lived in North Carolina, but spent a significant part of the winter in Florida. My father almost died there. This would have been misleading in the S.S.D.I. on the part of future researcher. Of course, I have the benefit of living in a state with an excellent State Death Index, North Carolina. I might also state the same is true for birth, marriage, and divorce. I’ve only seen a few other states such as Texas with as good a system. Many people take as fact that if the S.S.D.I says they died in one place, then that may be the place.

  13. SO, our “servants” in DC just want more $ and could care less about security, as usual. We as taxpayers should concentrate on trying to get term limits on all to one term only. Maybe we will eventually elect intelligent life form!

  14. Ed Hamilton says:

    Do you know how does a person get certified to request SSDI information and how much does it cost?

    Is it restricted to certain occupations, like coroners, bankers, and oil & gas landmen, etc.?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ed, we just don’t know yet. The law just took effect, the certification program will all be by rule (administrative decision) and we don’t have a clue yet what the program is going to look like — or even when it might be available.

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  16. Megan Heyl says:

    Hello Judy,
    I would like to ask for permission to use this article in our local genealogical society newsletter. I see that there is an “share” and “email” button at the bottom of this post – but wanted to make sure it was ok to share this information with our group. Thank you in advance for considering this request. And thank you for all your posts- I have learned so much from your posts! Happy New Year! Megan Heyl – Hunting Down History

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The share-email buttons are for individual use; republishing does need permission — and you have mine. Thanks for asking, Megan!

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