Ordering applications from the SSA

The issue came up again yesterday, at a talk with the Main Line Genealogy Club in Berwyn, Pennsylvania: just how can we get our hands on the form that was filed by a family member to get a Social Security number?

It’s far from the first time this has been raised — that SS-5 form is a gem when we can get it — but every time it does come up, folks have a lot of questions about ordering the form, how to do it, and what the complications can be. So today The Legal Genealogist updates the answers to this common question.1

Let’s review, first, what this form is and so what exactly we want to order — and then talk about how to get our hands on it, because how we order it can sometimes minimize the problems we run into with (sigh…) bureaucracy.

What the SS-5 is

The form we want to order from the Social Security Administration is generally known as an Application for a Social Security Number — the Form SS-5. The example below is my grandfather’s SS-5 form from 19372:

Like most of these forms used from the very beginning of the Social Security system in 1935, this 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.

So 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 we’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 on my father’s side 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.

Whose record we can get

We can get a copy of the Social Security Number Application (Form SS-5) of any person if:

• The person whose record we’re asking for has given us written consent to get it; or
• The person whose record we’re asking for is deceased, and we can prove it; or
• The person whose record we’re asking for was born more than 120 years ago.3

And because of a change in the law in 2013, there’s one more limit: if we’re asking for the record of a deceased person, that person must have died more than three full calendar years before the date of our request.4

What exactly to order

There are two items that sometimes get confused when we order: the same forms and fee statements talk about a Request for copy of Original Application for Social Security Card (Form SS-5) — now, as of 1 October 2018, with a fee of $24 — and a Request for Computer Extract of Social Security Number Application (“Numident”), with a fee, as of 1 October 2018, of $22.5

We want the first one. The computer extract often doesn’t have all the same information as the SS-5, it’s not a copy of the original anyway, it won’t have the original signatures, yadda yadda yadda.

Always always always order the copy of the Original Application for Social Security Card (Form SS-5) and pony up the higher fee.

How to order the SS-5

To order a copy of an applicant’s SS-5, we have to make a formal request under the federal Freedom of Information Act using Form SSA-771. And we can do that in one of two ways: online and by mail. Which method we choose should depend entirely on when the applicant was born and died.

Here’s why:

First of all, we 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, unless we have that person’s written permission to get the record, we have to be able to prove that the person is dead.

As of 2011, the Social Security Administration (SSA) changed its privacy policy and now declares that it “will not disclose information about any person in our records unless: 1) the number holder has provided written consent or we have acceptable proof of his or her death; or 2) the number holder is at least 100 years old and we have acceptable proof of his or her death; or 3) the number holder is more than 120 years old.”6

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 reports7 — 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 we can’t find in the public SSDI, we may well need to supply proof of death and that means sending acceptable proofs which may include:

• a copy of a public record of death; or
• a statement of death from a funeral director; or
• a statement of death by the attending physician or the superintendent, physician, or intern of the institution where the person died; or
• a copy of the coroner’s report of death or the verdict of the coroner’s jury; or
• a copy of an official report of death or finding of death made by an agency or department of the U.S. which is authorized or required to make such a report or finding in the administration of any law of the U.S.; or
• an obituary with sufficient identifying information.8

Since there’s no way to attach that proof to the online form, ordering by mail using the printed offline form is a better bet.

Second, under that 2011 privacy policy change, the SSA has made it harder to get the very information most useful from the SS-5 forms: the date and place of birth and the names of the parents. Here’s what the SSA says now: “we do not release the parents’ names unless: 1) we have the parents’ written consent or acceptable proof of death for the parents; or 2) the number holder is at least 100 years old and we have acceptable proof of his or her death; or 3) the number holder is more than 120 years old.”9

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, we 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 we’re ordering was born more than 100 years ago.

Types of proofs I’ve used on occasion to prove that the parents were deceased (or born long ago enough to be considered deceased) include:

• 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, 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 we want was born more than 100 years ago and (b) we’re darned sure that there aren’t any Social Security records showing the parents were under age 20 when the person was born. If we’re sure about both of those facts, then it’s safe to make the request using the online SSA-771 form even if we don’t have an exact date of death or proof of death (for the person or the person’s parents).

In all other cases, we should probably download the SSA-771 form and send it in by mail with our supporting evidence. The address for mailing is:

SSA OEIO DEBS FOIA
PO BOX 33022
Baltimore, MD 21290-3022

If we’re using Express Mail, then the address is:

SSA OEIO DEBS FOIA
6100 Wabash Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21215

What if we still get a redacted record

Whenever we get a redacted version of the SS-5 anyway, whether from the online system or by mail, we don’t have to take no for an answer. We 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.

There’s no formal process for an appeal: we just need to write a letter explaining why we think the information should not have been redacted, and include every bit of evidence we can think of. It’s important for us always to be nice, be professional — but not to just accept the decision. It’s very common for an initial redaction decision to be overturned.

If we never get a record we’ve paid for

This has happened more than once: we’ve sent in a request, the check had been cashed… and yet we never get anything from the SSA.

And that’s one thing we should never simply accept. Once a reasonable amount of time has passed since the check was cashed — 90 to 120 days — we need to do something.

First, I’d write to the SSA again at that Baltimore address. I’d enclose a copy of the cancelled check or proof that the check was cashed (a print-out of our online bank info, for example). I’d then give the SSA a reasonable time — say, 30 days — to provide the missing document and make it clear I’m going to continue to press the issue if I don’t get what I paid for.

If I still haven’t heard back at the end of that time period, I’d write again, but this time I’d send it directly to the office of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Right now, the acting Commissioner is Nancy A. Berryhill. I’d probably send it in care of the Office of Public Inquiries at:

1100 West High Rise
6401 Security Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21235

And in that letter, I’d do the same “please respond within 30 days” and enclose all previous correspondence.

And after that time period, I’d personally consider it time to bring in my member of Congress. Every member of Congress has a constituent affairs officer — somebody whose job it is to keep the home voters happy. So I’d write to my Congressional member (names and addresses can be found here — enter a zipcode and then click on the icon to go to that Congress member’s website for contact details).

Government officials tend to respond — quickly — when members of Congress get involved. Maybe the SSA types will ignore us — but it won’t ignore the people who authorize their paychecks.


SOURCES

  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Ordering the SS-5,” posted 31 May 2013, and “Ordering the SS-5: redux,” posted 6 Jan 2016, The Legal Genealogist, (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 14 Dec 2018).
  2. Clay Rex Cottrell, SS no. (withheld for privacy), 22 June 1937, Application for Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
  3. See “Online Social Security Electronic Freedom of Information (eFOIA) for Frequently Requested Records,” FOIA Request Methods and Fees, Social Security Administration (https://www.ssa.gov/ : accessed 14 Dec 2018).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 14 Dec 2018).
  5. Note that the fee schedule for ordering online says the fee for the SS-5 is $21 and for the computer extract, called a Numident, is $27. That’s outdated — the fees were changed effective 1 October 2018 to $24 for the SS-5 and $22 for the Numident. See “Charging Standard Administrative Fees for Non-Program Information,” 83 FR 45002, Federal Register, 4 Sep 2018 (https://www.federalregister.gov/ : accessed 14 Dec 2018).
  6. “SS-5 requests involving extreme age, Online Social Security Electronic Freedom of Information (eFOIA) for Frequently Requested Records,” FOIA Request Methods and Fees, Social Security Administration (https://www.ssa.gov/ : accessed 14 Dec 2018).
  7. See Kimberly Powell, “Access Restrictions to Social Security Death Index,” Thoughtco.com (https://www.thoughtco.com/ : accessed 14 Dec 2018).
  8. “SS-5 requests involving extreme age, Online Social Security Electronic Freedom of Information (eFOIA) for Frequently Requested Records,” FOIA Request Methods and Fees, Social Security Administration (https://www.ssa.gov/ : accessed 14 Dec 2018).
  9. Ibid.
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