What Social Security Records Can Tell You About Your Ancestor

Among the myriad of resources available to genealogists, Social Security records stand out as a particularly invaluable tool. Established in the 1930s, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has meticulously recorded information that can offer unique insights into an ancestor's life, including personal details, employment history, and death information.

The New Deal: How the Social Security Administration Came to Be

The Social Security Administration (SSA) was established as part of a broader response to the Great Depression, a period of severe economic hardship that began with the stock market crash of 1929. During this time, unemployment soared, and many Americans faced extreme poverty and insecurity. To address the dire economic conditions and provide a safety net for the most vulnerable citizens, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, a series of programs and reforms aimed at revitalizing the economy and providing relief to those in need.

One of the cornerstone pieces of New Deal legislation was the Social Security Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt on August 14, 1935. The Social Security Act aimed to create a system of old-age benefits for workers, unemployment insurance, and assistance for the disabled and needy families with dependent children. The Act marked a significant shift in the role of the federal government, establishing it as a provider of financial security for its citizens. The establishment of the Social Security Administration was a crucial element of this new social welfare landscape, tasked with administering the various programs outlined in the Act.

The initial focus of the Social Security Administration was on implementing the old-age benefits program, which involved the creation of a comprehensive system to register workers, track their earnings, and eventually distribute benefits. The first Social Security numbers were issued in 1936, serving as a unique identifier for each worker within the system. This registration process was a monumental task, requiring the Social Security Administration to set up a vast infrastructure to handle the administration of benefits and maintain accurate records. The success of this endeavor laid the groundwork for the organization’s ability to expand its services and adapt to changing social needs over the decades.

1940s Era Photograph Used in Advertising to Encourage Americans to Sign Up for Social Security Benefits - “Old-age and Survivors Insurance Under the Social Security Act. Every man wants security and happiness for his family. Wage earners covered by the Federal Old-age and Survivors Insurance System can look forward.”

Overview of Social Security Records

The types of Social Security records available to genealogists are varied and incredibly valuable. Key records include Social Security applications (Form SS-5), which contain detailed personal information provided by applicants when they first applied for a Social Security number. Claims records, generated when individuals apply for benefits, offer insights into employment history and family connections. Additionally, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is a crucial resource that lists deceased individuals whose deaths were reported to the SSA prior to 2015, providing names, birth and death dates, and Social Security numbers. These records collectively form a robust repository of data that can be instrumental in genealogical research.

For genealogists, Social Security records are a treasure trove of reliable and official information. Unlike many other sources that might rely on less formal or secondary accounts, Social Security records are based on official applications and government-verified data, making them primary sources for the individual who applied. This reliability makes them a cornerstone for building accurate family trees and verifying personal details. Given that these records often include exact birth dates, parents' names, and significant life events, they provide a level of detail that is often unmatched by other genealogical resources.

Moreover, Social Security records offer unique insights that can complement other genealogical data sources. For example, the SSDI can confirm an ancestor's death date and last known residence, which can help narrow down the search for other records such as death certificates or obituaries. The employment information found in claims records can reveal career paths and geographic movements, adding context to an ancestor's life story. By integrating Social Security records with other data, genealogists can uncover richer, more nuanced portraits of their ancestors, making these records indispensable tools in the quest to understand and document family histories.

Social Security Advertisement, Ca. 1960-1980

How to Access Social Security Records

Online Resources

Numerous websites provide access to Social Security records, making them readily available to genealogists and researchers worldwide. Platforms like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org offer searchable databases containing millions of Social Security Death Index (SSDI) records from 1935 to 2014, allowing users to easily locate information about deceased individuals. These databases typically include details such as full names, birth and death dates, Social Security numbers, and last known residences.

Requesting Records from the Social Security Administration

For those unable to find the desired information online or seeking access to more detailed records, the Social Security Administration (SSA) offers a process for requesting specific documents. The most commonly sought-after record is the Social Security application (Form SS-5), which contains a wealth of personal information about the applicant. To obtain a copy of an ancestor's SS-5, individuals can submit a request to the Social Security Administration under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with a few caveats. For any Social Security applicant who would not yet be 120 years old, each request requires a proof of death for the individual in question, such as a death certificate or obituary. The Social Security Administration charges a nominal fee of $30 for each record request, and processing times can vary depending on the volume of requests received.

Tips and Best Practices for Using Social Security Records in Genealogy

  • Cross-reference Social Security records with census data to corroborate personal information and track individuals over time.
  • Utilize birth and death certificates to validate dates and locations provided in Social Security records, ensuring accuracy in your family tree.
  • Explore military records for additional insights into an ancestor's service history and potential benefits received.
  • Be aware of transcription errors that may occur when records are digitized or indexed, leading to inaccuracies in names, dates, or other vital information. Double-checking multiple sources can help mitigate these errors.
  • Recognize the limitations of Social Security records, which may be incomplete or missing crucial details. Supplementing these records with additional sources can provide a more comprehensive picture of your ancestor's life.

In the pursuit of unraveling our family histories, few resources are as invaluable as Social Security records. The rich information these records provide offers a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors and illuminates their stories in ways we never imagined. From birthdates and employment history to death information and beyond, Social Security records serve as foundational sources upon which we can build our family trees with confidence and clarity

Want help obtaining Social Security records for your ancestors? Trace’s professional genealogists are here to help you obtain the records with ease. Your ancestral stories await – it's time to uncover them.

Interested in reading more? Check out our other blog posts, “Anatomy of a Social Security Number” and “Using the Social Security Death Index” for more information. 

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Written by

June 11, 2024
Wesley is the founder of hello@traceyourpast.com.

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