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SSDI access part of budget bill

NOTE: The fight in the House is already over — they voted last night (Thursday, 12 December) and we lost (see today’s blog post, Friday, 13 December). Please turn your attention now to your Senators!

The genealogical community is taking it on the chin in the so-called “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013,” the budget proposal now being fast-tracked in Congress.

ssdmfThe legislation contains a provision closing access to the Social Security Death Master File — what we know as the Social Security Death Index — for three years from the date of an individual’s death, with only those certified by the government having access any earlier.

Unless our voices are heard, right now, today, genealogists who really do need that earlier access aren’t going to get it.

Now let’s stop for a second and go back over the history here. Because this bill isn’t the worst that can happen, and maybe, just maybe, if we all act — right now, today — we can make it a little better.

Public access to the SSDI has been under attack for years as misguided legislators have blamed it for contributing to identity theft and income tax refund fraud. In the last Congress, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Social Security of the House Ways & Means Committee, was pushing hard to end public access to the SSDI completely.1

The hearings held by Johnson’s committee focused specifically on the genealogical community. We were blamed for taking scarce resources when we made Freedom of Information Act requests for data, and the posting of the SSDI data on genealogical sites was singled out as facilitating fraud.2

Other legislators got into the act, but with proposals that — while still bad — wouldn’t end public access but rather limit it for a time to allow the Internal Revenue Service more time to prevent misuse of a decedent’s Social Security number for tax fraud.3

Fortunately, the legislation didn’t go anywhere in the last Congress. But when this new Congress took office in January 2013, the attacks on the SSDI ramped back up.4 And Rep. Johnson wasn’t finished trying to close the SSDI completely: he just snuck it into a bill by trying to disguise it as a sunset provision (a term for a feature that dies at a certain time — as in riding off into the sunset).5

With the Congressional focus on other matters, the SSDI took a back seat over the last few months. But boy did that all change this week. Because the SSDI is now part and parcel of this new budget proposal, and it’s fast-tracked for action. The House of Representatives could vote as soon as tomorrow.

Now this new budget bill doesn’t have the worst features of prior proposals. It does not end access to the SSDI forever, but only closes off public access for three years. That section of the budget bill reads:

The Secretary of Commerce shall not disclose to any person information contained on the Death Master File with respect to any deceased individual at any time during the 3-calendar-year period beginning on the date of the individual’s death…6

So what’s the big deal about the three years? After all, for the vast majority of us who are day-to-day genealogists, that time period really isn’t critical: we’re more interested in people who died 30 — or 300 — years ago than people who died in the last three years. Most genealogists simply don’t need instant access to the SSDI.

But there are those in the genealogical community who do need that kind of access. Our community includes forensic genealogists, heir researchers, and those researching individual genetically-inherited diseases — and for those people, loss of immediate access to this resource would be devastating.

It’s true that the new proposal does include a requirement that the Commerce Department (which published the Death Master File) create a certification program, and certification would be open to any person who has “(i) a legitimate fraud prevention interest, or (ii) a legitimate business purpose pursuant to a law, governmental rule, regulation, or fiduciary duty.”7

That language seems as though it could be broad enough to include some small fraction of the forensic community — perhaps those working on projects to repatriate military remains. But there’s no guarantee that it would be read that way, it would still leave out a lot of genealogists who need this access, and there are a lot of hoops set up in the law.

First and foremost, it will take time to get a certification program up and running — leaving people who need access in the lurch in the meantime. Second, anybody trying to get access has to comply with a complex set of rules set by law that were adopted to control access to tax returns.8 That’s a level of security that just isn’t necessary here.

So… what does this mean? What can we do?

The answer is: we’d darned well better speak out now. Today. This minute. Because this bill is likely to be voted on in the House of Representatives tomorrow.

This is a two-step process:

1. Learn about the issues

The first step is to make sure we understand the issues involved in the SSDI fight. We have to have our facts straight and not sink access to one type of record in order to save access to another. It might sound easy to argue “it’s birth certificates, not Social Security numbers, that cause problems!” Right. And you know what would happen next, right? Right. We’d lose even more access to birth certificates.

So… don’t wing it! There are a lot of good resources out there to really understand the issues involved in records access, from organizations like the Records Preservation & Access Committee (a joint committee of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies) and the Massachusetts Genealogical Council. We can all start with these:

From the Records Preservation & Access Committee:

• “SSDI Talking Points 2013” (a Word .docx format document), PDF available here

• “RPAC Brochure The Case For Open Public Records May 2013

• Video: “Got Records? Threats to Genealogy Records Access,” featuring RPAC member Jan Meisels Allen, a good overview of RPAC and the issues confronting access to the SSDI and other records.

From the Massachusetts Genealogical Council:

• “White Paper: Framing a Discussion on Vital Records Access

• “How to Promote Open Access

And if you want to read through everything The Legal Genealogist has written on this subject since January 2012, this link will take you to those older posts. In particular, posts that may help include:

SSDI hearing: “no silver bullet”, 21 March 2012

SSDI: The art of the possible, 4 April 2012

Fraud prevention firm: keep SSDI public, 25 April 2012

SSDI still at risk, 9 May 2012

Edited to add: Good information is also available from Bradley Jansen of online here.

2. Speak up!

Once we’re sure we understand the ins and outs of the issue, the next step is to contact our own individual members of Congress. We can all find out who our representative is by simply entering a zip code into the Find Your Representative box at the House of Representatives website.

The points we need to make are simple:

• The numbers being thrown out as budget savings if access to the Death Master File (SSDI) is limited are absolutely unsubstantiated.

• The same savings — and more! — could be accomplished faster, easier and without impacting public access to information if agencies like the IRS were required to use the SSDI, rather than shutting off access to it.

• If Congress is nonetheless convinced that some brief period of access closure is required, such closure should not begin until a certification program for those who need more rapid access is in place.

• Any certification program should be open to anyone who can establish a legitimate need for access, including forensic genealogists, heir researchers, and those researching individual genetically-inherited diseases.

There’s no time to waste here. Read up and then speak up!




  1. See Judy G. Russell, “SSDI Call to Action!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 Jan 2012 ( : accessed 11 Dec 2013).
  2. Ibid., “SSDI Hearings: OUCH!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Feb 2012.
  3. See ibid., “Losing ground on the SSDI,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Aug 2012.
  4. See ibid., “News from the SSDI front,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Jan 2013. Also, ibid., “Now there are three,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 25 Feb 2013.
  5. Ibid., “Johnson: into the sunset for SSDI,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 23 July 2013.
  6. §203, 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).
  7. Ibid. at 33.
  8. The rules are set out in 26 U.S.C. §6103(p)(4).
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