Access Restrictions to Social Security Death Index

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Powell, Kimberly. "Access Restrictions to Social Security Death Index." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/access-restrictions-social-security-death-index-1422374. Powell, Kimberly. (2017, March 3). Access Restrictions to Social Security Death Index. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/access-restrictions-social-security-death-index-1422374 Powell, Kimberly. "Access Restrictions to Social Security Death Index." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/access-restrictions-social-security-death-index-1422374 (accessed September 20, 2017).
Public access to the Social Security Death Master File, aka Social Security Death Index, is now restricted.

The Social Security Death Master File, maintained by the US Social Security Administration (SSA), is a database of death records collected from a variety of sources used by the SSA to administer their programs. This includes death information collected from family members, funeral homes, financial institutions, postal authorities, States and other Federal agencies. The Social Security Death Master File is not a comprehensive record of all deaths in the United States—just a record of those deaths reported to the Social Security Administration.

The SSA maintains two versions of the Death Master File (DMF):

  • The full file contains all death records extracted from the SSA database, including death data received from the States, and is shared only with certain Federal and State agencies pursuant to section 205(r) of the Social Security Act.
  • The public file (commonly referred to as the Social Security Death Index, or SSDI), as of 1 November 2011, does not include "protected" death records received from the States.  According to the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which disseminates the Death Master File, “Section 205(r) of the Act prohibits SSA from disclosing state death records SSA receives through its contracts with the states, except in limited circumstances.” This change removed approximately 4.2 million of the 89 million deaths at that time contained in the public Death Master File (Social Security Death Index), and approximately 1 million fewer deaths are now added each year. At the same time, the Social Security Agency also stopped including the decedent’s residential state and Zip code in the public file (SSDI).

    Why the Changes to the Public Social Security Death Index?

    The 2011 changes to the Social Security Death Index began with a Scripps Howard News Service investigation in July 2011, that complained about individuals using Social Security Numbers for deceased individuals found online to commit tax and credit fraud.

    Large genealogy services which offered access to the Social Security Death Index were targeted as helping to perpetuate the fraud related to use of social security numbers for deceased individuals. In November 2011, GenealogyBank removed social security numbers from their free U.S. Social Security Death Index database, after two customers complained their privacy was violated when the Social Security Administration falsely listed them as deceased. In December 2011, following a petition sent to the "five largest genealogy services" who provided online access to the SSDI, by U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois), Ancestry.com removed all access to the popular, free version of the SSDI that had been hosted on RootsWeb.com for over a decade. They also removed social security numbers for individuals who died within the past 10 years from the SSDI database hosted behind their membership wall on Ancestry.com, "due to sensitivities around the information in this database."

    The Senators' December 2011 petition urged companies to "remove and no longer post on your website deceased individual's Social Security numbers" because they believe that the benefits provided by making the Death Master File readily available online are greatly outweighed by the costs of disclosing such personal information, and that "...given the other information available on your website -- full names, birth dates, death dates -- Social Security numbers provide little benefit to individuals undertaking to learn about their familial history." While the letter conceded that posting the Social Security numbers "is not illegal" under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it also went on to point out that "legality and propriety are not the same thing." 

    Unfortunately, these 2011 restrictions weren't the end of the changes to public access to the Social Security Death Index. Pursuant to law passed in December 2013 (Section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013), access to information contained in the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (DMF) is now limited for a three year period beginning on the date of an individual’s death to authorized users and recipients who qualify for certification. Genealogists and other individuals can no longer request copies of social security applications (SS-5) for individuals who have died within the past three years under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. Recent deaths are also not included in the SSDI until three years after the date of death.

    Where You Can Still Access the Social Security Death Index Online