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How long does it take

If there has been any silver lining whatsoever to the pandemic cloud these last 18 to 20 months, it’s been that a lot of government agencies, archives and other repositories have managed to get a lot more materials digitized and available online.

On the other hand — you knew there was going to be one, right? — it hasn’t helped one bit when the item we as genealogists need has to be requested from a government agency under the federal or any state’s records access law. Those need to be handled by somebody, in person, on the job.

Which, of course, hits The Legal Genealogist as hard as it hits anyone else, this time in preparing for recertification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.1

I needed to order a whole bunch of records from the Social Security Administration, and every last one of them is a record that (a) isn’t available online and (b) falls within the realm of those that have to be requested under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The records — the social security number application forms, Form SS-5, for a bunch of folks in the lines of descent of some DNA testers — could be the easiest way to document certain relationships if only I could get my hands on them.2

We’ve talked here before about what these forms can do to advance our genealogical research: these are records in which the applicant gives a birth date and birth place, notes a current address and employer if there is one and — most importantly for our research purposes — usually states who his or her parents are.3 Here as an example is one for my maternal grandfather, who applied for his social security number in 1937:4

And we’ve gone over in detail how to order these records, especially since there was a big change in the way they can be ordered as of last year.5 The new system is very different from before, but it actually works better — we can now attach supporting documentation to try to avoid the issues that can come up with getting redacted records (blacking out the parents’ names) because of privacy constraints.6

And lots of folks have followed those directions, and then waited. And waited.

And they’ve started asking questions. One is how exactly — in what form — the record will arrive. That’s easy: it comes on paper, in the regular mail, in an envelope from the Social Security Administration.

The other has been a lot harder: how long is it going to take? And that’s what I wasn’t entirely sure of, especially with the pandemic-related issues. Each request gets reviewed by a real person, and office closure due to the pandemic has made that a tough situation throughout the government.

I can now tell you, from personal experience, it’s taking around seven to eight weeks. And I know that because the first of the ones I ordered in early September just came in yesterday.

It was for a woman born in 1913 1930 who died in 2007. That’s recent enough that I wanted to attach supporting information (a tombstone photo) to show that the parents were deceased so their names wouldn’t be redacted from the form. It’s easy to do that now right in the request system itself.

And as a result, the form I received yesterday has no redactions — all the information I need to cite is there, all in a single lovely place, all nicely in the handwriting of the applicant herself, at the age of 14.

So… how long will it take to get a copy of an SS-5 form if you order it?

Expect a minimum of about seven to eight weeks.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “About those SS-5s,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 26 Oct 2021).


H/t to John Blythe for catching the error in the birth year…

  1. Ulp. Every five years. And it never seems to get any easier.
  2. Yes, folks, I really do know all about the indexes available online, both at Ancestry and at the National Archives’ Archival Databases website. Not good enough. Our goal as genealogists is to use the best source — the original record — whenever possible.
  3. See the section “What the SS-5 is” in Judy G. Russell, “Ordering the SS-5: 2020 style,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Nov 2020 ( : accessed 26 Oct 2021).
  4. Clay Rex Cottrell, SS no. (withheld for privacy), 22 June 1937, Application for Account Number (Form SS-5), Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland.
  5. See “Ordering the SS-5: 2020 style,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Nov 2020.
  6. See ibid. and especially the discussion at “How to order the SS-5.”
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