Searching the Social Security Death Index

How to Locate Your Ancestors in the SSDI

Social Security Card Search
Nick M. Do / Getty Images

The Social Security Death Index is a huge database containing vital information for more than 77 million people (primarily Americans) whose deaths have been reported to the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA). Deaths included in this index may have been submitted by a survivor requesting benefits or in order to stop Social Security Benefits to the deceased. Most of the information (about 98%) included in this index dates from 1962, although some data is from as early as 1937. This is because 1962 is the year that the SSA began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits. Many of the earlier records (1937-1962) have never been added to this computerized database.

Also included in the millions of records are approximately 400,000 railroad retirement records from the early 1900s to 1950s. These begin with numbers in the 700-728 range.

What You Can Learn From the Social Security Death Index

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is an excellent resource for finding information on Americans who died after the 1960s. A record in the Social Security Death Index will generally contain some or all of the following information: last name, first name, birth date, death date, Social Security number, the state of residence where the Social Security number (SSN) was issued, the last known residence and the location where the last benefit payment was sent. For individuals who died while residing outside of the U.S., the record may also include a special state or country residence code. Social Security records can help provide information needed to find a birth certificate, death certificate, obituary, maiden name, parents names, occupation or residence.

How to Search the Social Security Death Index

The Social Security Death Index is available as a free online database from numerous online organizations. There are some who charge for access to the Social Security Death index as well, but why pay when you can search it for free?

For best results when searching the Social Security Death Index, enter only one or two known facts and then search. If the individual had an unusual surname, you may even find it useful to search on just the surname. If the search results are too large, then add more information and search again. Get creative. Most Social Security Death Index databases will allow you to search on any combination of facts (such as a birth date and first name).

With over 77 million Americans included in the SSDI, locating a particular person can often be an exercise in frustration. Understanding the search options is extremely important in helping to narrow down you search. Remember: it is best to start off with just a few facts and then add additional info if it is needed to fine tune your search results.

Search the SSDI by Last Name
When searching the SSDI you should often start with the last name and, perhaps, one other fact. For best results, select the "Soundex Search" option (if available) so that you don't miss possible misspellings. You can also try searching for the obvious alternate name spellings on your own. When searching for a name with punctuation in it (such as D'Angelo), enter the name without the punctuation. You should try this both with and without a space in place of the punctuation (i.e. 'D Angelo' and DAngelo). All names with prefixes and suffixes (even those which don't use punctuation) should be searched both with and without the space (i.e. 'McDonald' and 'Mc Donald'). For married women, try searching under both their married name and their maiden name.

Search the SSDI by First Name
The first name field is searched by exact spelling only, so be sure to try other possibilities including alternate spellings, initials, nicknames, middle names etc.

Search the SSDI by Social Security Number
This is often the piece of information that genealogists searching the SSDI are looking for. This number can enable you to order the individual's Social Security application, which can lead to the discovery of all sorts of new clues for your ancestor. You can also learn which state issued the SSN from the first three digits.

Searching the SSDI by State of Issue
In most cases, the first three numbers of the SSN indicate which state issued the number (there are a few instances where one three digit number was used for more than one state). Complete this field if you are fairly positive of where your ancestor was living when they received their SSN. Be aware, however, that people often lived in one state and had their SSN issued from another state.

Searching the SSDI by Birth Date
This field has three parts: the birth date, month and year. You may search on just one or any combination of these fields. (i.e. the month and year). If you have no luck, then try narrowing down your search to just one (i.e. the month or the year). You should also search for obvious typos (i.e. 1895 and/or 1958 for 1985).

Searching the SSDI by Death Date
Just as with the birth date, the death date lets you search separately on the birth date, month and year. For deaths prior to 1988 it is advisable to search on the month and year only, as the exact date of death was seldom recorded. Make sure to search for the possible typos!

Searching the SSDI by Location of Last Residence
This is the address where the person was last known to be living when the benefit was applied for. About 20% of records do not contain any information on Last Residence, so if you are having no luck with your search you may want to try searching with this field left blank. The residence location is entered in the form of a ZIP code and includes the city/town which is associated with that ZIP code. Keep in mind that boundaries have changed over time, so make sure to cross reference the city/town names with other sources.

Searching the SSDI by Last Benefit Information
If the individual in question was married you may find that the last benefit and location of last residence are one and the same. It is a field which you will usually want to leave blank for your search as the last benefit could often have been paid to any number of people. This information can prove to be extremely valuable in the search for relatives, however, as next of kin were usually the ones to receive the last benefit.

Many people search the Social Security Death Index and quickly get discouraged when they can't locate someone they feel should be listed. There are actually a lot of reasons why a person may not be included, as well as tips to finding people who aren't listed as you would expect.

Have You Exhausted All Your Options?

Before concluding that your ancestor's name is not in the index, try the following:

  • Make sure that you have tried soundex search or alternate spellings for your surname.
  • Many SSDI indexes allow wildcards to be used in searching. (You could type in Pat* Smith and it would find Pat Smith, Patrick Smith, Patricia Smith and so on). Check the rules for the SSDI search engine you are using to see what types of wildcards are allowed.
  • If you have filled in several search fields and received no results for your ancestor, then try searching with less information. Just because you know your ancestor's birth date, doesn't mean it is listed correctly in the SSDI or that it is even listed at all.
  • If you are including the given name (first name) in your search, then be sure to check for alternate spellings. The search will only return results which match the given name you enter exactly.
  • Middle names are not usually included. Even if your ancestor went by his/her middle name, you should be sure to check under their first name as well. In some cases the first and middle names may both be included in the given name field.
  • The person may be listed with an initial or initials in the given name field.
  • An individual may have only a single name entered (either a first name or a last name). You would be best off trying to narrow these down with other known facts such as birth or death date.
  • Married women are most likely listed under their husband's surname, but if this provides no results then check for a listing under their maiden name. If a women was married more than once, be sure to check all married names.
  • Titles such as military rank (Col.), Occupation (Dr.), Family Rank (Jr.) and Religious Order (Fr.) may be included with either the surname or the given name. There may also be variations in the way the title was entered. For example, you may find Jr. with and without the period and placed after the surname with either a space or a comma (i.e. Smith, Jr or Smith Jr.).
  • Leave out the ZIP code field as this does not exist for the earlier records.
  • Check a variety of dates - typos and transposition of digits is common. 1986 could have been entered as 1896 or 1968. 01/06/63 could be read as January 6, 1963 or June 1, 1963.

Reasons You May Not Find Your Ancestor

  • The person who entered the information into the database may have made typographical or other errors. The information may also have been incorrectly recorded during the initial application process. This was especially true when Social Security numbers were first issued and involved a multi-step application process with an opportunity for errors at each step.
  • Many of the records prior to 1962 (when the SSDI database was first computerized) were never added.
  • Your ancestor's death may have never been reported to the Social Security Administration.
  • It may be possible that your ancestor did not have a Social Security card. Many occupations prior to 1960 were not eligible for social security enrollment.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Searching the Social Security Death Index." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, September 8). Searching the Social Security Death Index. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Searching the Social Security Death Index." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).