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A timely question about getting the SSN

Reader Amy Jacobsen asks a great question that just happens to be very timely.

“I am having trouble understanding my Grandmother’s Social Security number on her death certificate,” she writes. “I would like to know the best way to get a copy of her Social Security number so I can read it better.”

Social_security_cardIt’s a great question because it’s a question a lot of us might have: how do we get a Social Security number of a parent, or grand parent, or great grandparent?

And it’s timely because there’s a new resource available that might help.

Let’s start with the basics.

The Social Security system began during the Great Depression, and the Social Security number (SSN) was created then — in 1936 — to help track the earnings histories of workers. By roughly 2008, more than 450 million SSNs had been issued.1

The numbers are in part geographic: until 1973, the first three digits were assigned based on the state where the person applied for the number for the very first time; since 1973, those first three digits are based on the zip code of the mailing address used in the application.2

And if you’re the kind of history geek that The Legal Genealogist is, you may want to know that the lowest possible SSN ever issued was 001-01-0001, and it was issued on 24 November 1936 to Grace D. Owen of Concord, New Hampshire.3

From 1936 to 1971, absolutely no proof of identity was required from anyone applying for a number. It was simply assigned based on what the person said. In 1971, evidence of identity was required; in 1972, age, identity and citizenship status had to be proved; more requirements have been added over time.4

Now we all know, as the Social Security Administration says, that the purpose of the number was and is to track worker earnings5 — but that it’s also been used for almost every conceivable other purpose to help identify and distinguish people. Which makes it amazingly useful to genealogists — a simple way to tell this John Smith from that John Smith.

So… where can we find these numbers for our deceased family members?

First, look through our family papers. It’s likely that we’ll find the SSN all over the place, and we may even find our loved one’s original Social Security card. It’s sure worth checking there first, before any other option.

Second, for some of our family members who died before March of 2014, we can check the various sources online for the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). That includes the versions of the SSDI on, at and at, among others. (Check Cyndi’s List for a list of possible online sources.)

The SSDI doesn’t include everybody who ever had a number, and because of changes in federal law won’t include anyone who died after March 2014 until three full calendar years after the death.6 And some online sources won’t include the SSN for anyone who died within the last 10 years.

Even with those limitations, it’s still a good place to look, entering as much information as we have about a family member into the various search fields.

Third — and here’s the timely part, at least for Ancestry subscribers — there’s a new index that just came online recently at Ancestry. It’s called the “U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007.” It too won’t include the actual SSN of anyone who died within the last 10 years, but the index (according to its description on Ancestry) “picks up where the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) leaves off by providing more details than those included in the SSDI.”

Finally, you can file a request with the Social Security Administration itself for a copy of the person’s original application for the SSN (called the SS-5 form) as long as the person died more than three years ago. Because of that change in the law, the SSA won’t provide any information for anyone until three full calendar years have passed since the death.

You will need to include every bit of information you have about the person, pay the extra fee ($29 without the SSN, as opposed to $27 with the SSN) — and I’d suggest you make the request on paper, not online, because of the SSA’s privacy rules.7

And once you get any SSN, for anyone, at any time, don’t forget the privacy issues here: SSNs are used today to identify living people, and we should never ever ever post or share any SSN online or in email or anywhere else where it could possibly be misused. A little common sense, a little caution… always the way to go.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Carolyn Puckett, “The Story of the Social Security Number,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 69 No. 2, 2009; online version, Social Security Administration ( : accessed 27 July 2015).
  2. Kimberly Powell, “Social Security Number Allocations by Location,” Genealogy ( : accessed 27 July 2015).
  3. “The First Social Security Number and the Lowest Number,” Social Security Administration ( : accessed 27 July 2015).
  4. Puckett, “The Story of the Social Security Number,” Exhibit 1, Changes in Social Security card evidence requirements, 1936–2008.
  5. Ibid.
  6. See generally Judy G. Russell, “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013 ( : accessed 27 July 2015). Also, ibid., “SSDI: The fat lady sings,” posted 19 Dec 2013.
  7. See generally ibid., “Ordering the SS-5,” posted 31 May 2013.
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