Ordering applications from the SSA
NOTE: This post is outdated. Please head over to Ordering the SS-5: 2020 style.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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). ↩
- Clay Rex Cottrell, SS no. (withheld for privacy), 22 June 1937, Application for Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland. ↩
- “Make a FOIA Request,” Social Security Administration (http://www.ssa.gov/foia/request.html : accessed 30 May 2013). ↩
- 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). ↩
- Ibid. ↩