The Social Security Death Index is a great research tool for finding relatives who died sometime after the early 1960s.
The SSDI is an index to the Death Master File (DMF) maintained by the Social Security Administration (SSA), which contains roughly 100 million records and is updated weekly. The file is created from internal SSA records of deceased persons possessing social security numbers and whose deaths were reported to the SSA.
The information within the SSDI is in the public domain and thereby available to everyone. However, in recent years a number of well-meaning but misguided public officials have attempted to close or at least restrict public access to the SSDI in the name of "preventing identity theft." Apparently, these officials do not realize that public access to the SSDI is one of the best tools for PREVENTING identity theft! (See my earlier article about the theft protection value of the SSDI at http://goo.gl/zthmCx.)
The SSDI traditionally has been available on a number of genealogy web sites. Because of pressures from these misguided bureaucrats, several of these sites have either deleted the SSDI from their web sites or else moved the records behind pay walls, available only to their paid subscribers. As a result, SSDI records are becoming harder and harder to find. Luckily, one web site still finds these records, wherever they may be available.
Another problem involves the method of searching the SSDI on the sites that still offer it. One search may require entry of full names while a different site may offer the ability to use wild cards. For instance, a search for CHRISTOPHER may not work on some web sites when the person's name is listed as CHRISTOPHE. Still other web sites will allow you to search for CHRISTOP* where the asterisk means to "find all names that begin with the letters "Christop."
Still other sites may or may not offer the option to search by dates. The list goes on... different sites have different methods of searching. How is a genealogist able to quickly and easily find the information he or she seeks? The answer is easy: use Stephen Morse's One-Step Search Portal at http://www.stevemorse.org.
Steve Morse is well known for the software tools he creates to simplify the searching of many online genealogy databases. Sometimes I think that Steve Morse is God's gift to genealogists. He takes good databases and turns them into great ones. Steve has created excellent indexing tools to the Ellis Island and Castle Garden sites as well as many other databases of interest to genealogists. His search tools generally will perform faster searches with more accurate results than the search capabilities invented by the original database designers.
Steve doesn't add any new data. He simply improves the search mechanisms and makes the search software available on his own site, called the "One-Step Portal." If you'd like to try Stephen Morse's One-Step Search Portal, go to http://www.stevemorse.org. I suspect you will be impressed by all the searches available there.
Steve Morse saw the weaknesses in the various offerings of the SSDI, so he created his own index at http://www.stevemorse.org/ssdi/ssdi.html. As you can see from the screenshot below, Steve offers more search options than any of the other online sites that offer the SSDI.
worldvitalrecords.comHowever, Steve Morse's One-Stop web site only searches those sites one at a time. If you want to search ALL of those sites, you need to perform six separate searches, one for each online service.
Keep in mind that some of these services may restrict the information to paid members of the site. For instance, World Vital Records will only display results to paid subscribers. Ancestry.com will provide limited information to non-subscribers; but, to view the entire record, you need to sign on to Ancestry.com with a user name and password. Other online sites may or may not restrict access in some manner.
Steve Morse's One-Step Genealogy web site is always available free of charge, but the records it points to may be limited by the policies of the external site that controls those records.
Keep in mind that the SSDI records have some limitations. For instance, the Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and more than thirty million Americans were registered for the economic security sanctions by 1937. While the Social Security Administration started collecting information immediately, those records were not computerized until the early 1960s. Earlier deaths are usually not shown in the SSDI. Even then, the computerizing of records was phased in over several years. As a result, one person's death in 1963 might be listed, but another person's death in the same year might not be in the database. By the mid-1960s, all deaths reported to the Social Security Administration were recorded in the Death Master File and are listed in the SSDI. However, "all deaths reported" did not include the deaths of all Americans.
In the 1960s and for many years after, the only deaths recorded by the Social Security Administration were those of individuals who died while receiving Social Security benefits. In most cases, this was for individuals aged 65 or older. Most deaths of younger people were not recorded because they were not receiving Social Security payments at the time of death.
NOTE: A very few deaths of younger people may be listed in the SSDI during those years when the deceased was receiving a widow's or children's survivor benefits.In fact, not all Americans were covered by Social Security benefits in those years. School teachers, railroad workers, and municipal employees, as well as housewives and handicapped people who had never been employed outside the home typically did not receive Social Security benefits, and their deaths were not recorded in the SSDI unless they were receiving survivors' benefits at the time of their death.
By 1990 or so, all this changed. School teachers, railroad workers, municipal employees, and others had their retirement benefits absorbed by the Social Security system. Next, the laws changed, and notice of ALL deaths within the United States had to be sent to the Social Security Administration. As a result, deaths in the 1990s and later of children and younger adults may be found in the SSDI even though deaths of younger people in earlier years are not listed.
Another limitation is that of the last update. While the SSDI is updated weekly by the Social Security Administration, the individual web sites that publish those records may be updated weekly, quarterly, annually, or perhaps never. For recent deaths, always search several web sites. Also, the Social Security adds corrections as they are found. Even records of deaths that occurred ten or twenty years ago might be corrected in recent releases of the SSDI.
Records found in the SSDI also list "last residence." Keep in mind that this is usually correct, but not always. Actually, this entry reflects where the last Social Security payment was sent. Occasionally, the deceased was living in one location, but checks were sent to someone else who was responsible for the financial affairs of the deceased. One common example is when the deceased was living in a retirement community or nursing home in Florida or some other sunbelt location, but the children were living "up north." The checks may have been sent to the child's address, not to the nursing home. Another possibility is that the deceased person was an immigrant who moved back to "the old country" to spend his or her retirement years, but the children remained in the U.S. and took care of the financial affairs of the parent. The record of "last residence" usually reflects the residence where the checks were sent. In a very few cases, that address might be a law firm that was handling the deceased person's estate after death.
When searching the SSDI, be aware that long first and last names listed for deaths in earlier years have been truncated. Apparently, this was changed around 2005. For instance, one of my close family members named Christopher died in 1994. His first name is listed in the SSDI as: Christophe (only ten letters). You can see his record and that of other males with the same name at http://goo.gl/fRk7dF.
However, it appears that the name fields were lengthened about 2005. For example, look at deceased males named "Christopher Smith" at http://goo.gl/vv32Wr. You will find many of them listed with the full first name, but all of these people died in 2005 or later. You can see the same for other first names. For instance, Bartholom Smith died in 1984, according to the SSDI record at http://goo.gl/gqB74U although I assume his full name was Bartholomew Smith.
Given these restrictions, a search for "Christopher" or "Bartholomew" or another long name may or may not work, depending upon which version of the SSDI you are using (ancestry.com, familysearch.org, familytreelegends.com, genealogybank.com, NEHGS' americanancesters.org or worldvitalrecords.com).
Use of Stephen Morse's One-Step Search Portal simplifies these searches. Looking at the screenshot above, you will see that the site offers options for name searches: NAME IS EXACTLY or NAME STARTS WITH. Last names also have options of SOUNDS LIKE, CONTAINS, ENDS WITH, and METAPHONE (Metaphone is an algorithm for encoding a word so that similar sounding words encode the same, similar to soundex in purpose.). When performing a new search, I suggest you start with NAME STARTS WITH and then enter only the first ten letters or less of the name. If the results obtained fill pages and pages, you can then narrow the search by using any of the other parameters on the One-Step Search Portal's search page and then try again.
Keep in mind that spelling variations are common. Perhaps your family now always spells a last name as “Deabay.” However, when the deceased first applied for a Social Security Number, he or she may have spelled the name as Dubay, Debay, du Bay, or Dubé. The Social Security Administration's records will reflect the spelling on the original application unless that person later applied for a name change, which happened often. Next, the records in the SSDI typically do not reflect umlauts, diacritical marks, or other letters only found in non-English European alphabets. For example, a last name of Dubé will be shown in the SSDI as Dube.
Use of Stephen Morse's One-Step Search Portal simplifies the searches as well as adds powerful search options that may not be available on all web sites' copies of the SSDI data. If you want to find the death information of someone who died in the U.S. in the early 1960s or later, go to http://www.stevemorse.org/ssdi/ssdi.html.