Using Ancestry.com: SSDI Blues

by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

I did something today that I’ve been dreading. I finally got the courage to search for my mother’s name in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). And yes, she’s in there, although she passed away only about ten weeks ago.

It still doesn’t truly register. I thought it would be a few more decades before Mom would appear in this resource that I use on a daily basis without any thought–without any thought of what it really means. Each one of those millions of entries meant the world to someone.

There’s a part of me that’s convinced the entry is for someone else–especially because hers is so full of red herrings. Unless you actually knew her, her SSDI listing would send you off on a wild goose chase. And for that reason, I thought it might make a good example of how we sometimes read too much into the details we find in the SSDI.

A Nod Toward Privacy
I realize it would make a much clearer example if I were to reproduce my mother’s SSDI listing here, but a cautionary voice in me hesitates to provide so much personal detail–especially since I’ll be dissecting it and providing additional information. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I do this semi-anonymously.

Name
To start with, there’s her name. I wondered how she would be listed–whether the SSDI would include her under the first name she never actually used in life. She was a “Joisey girl” but had the Southern habit of going by her distinctive middle name. Even in her business life, she used her first initial followed by her middle name. But the SSDI doesn’t know any better, so she’s listed under a name that I don’t associate with her.

And then there’s the matter of her choice in her last name. She was married twice, once to my father and again, just five years ago. After my parents divorced several decades ago, she resumed use of her maiden name. And when she remarried, she chose to retain that name. So in spite of two marriages, she died with the same name she was born with–not especially common for women in their 60s, but a sign of things to come.

Residence and Benefit
The SSDI listings usually provide a location for last residence and last benefit, and Mom’s is no exception. We frequently use this as a proxy for place of death–and in many cases, it’s a good indication.

But in this case, these clues are misleading because my mother, like so many these days, was a snowbird. She passed away in Florida, but you’d never know that from her entry. If you were to try to obtain a copy of her death certificate, her entry would send you to a different and less genealogy-friendly state, so you’d struggle to even get a “not found” response.

State of Issue
And then there’s the matter of the state of issue. Even I was surprised at this. I had expected it to be New Jersey, the state of her birth and childhood, as well as her on-and-off again residence over later years. Instead, it was a state where we had resided for a single year.

I come from a military family, so we bounced around a lot. And for whatever reasons, Mom apparently had not applied for Social Security until she was in her mid-twenties and married with two kids. I come from a generation where we applied for Social Security as youngsters, and now, most do it almost upon birth. But Mom’s generation of women often waited until their first job, so good luck to anyone who tried to seek her in the state of issue where she hardly lived long enough to leave any trace.

Outwitting the SSDI
To give you some sense of my mother, several who knew her best assured me that she was up there giving St. Peter a hard time. As one wrote, “She was a powerhouse of a woman. The world is unquestionably a better place for her saunter across the stage. I’ll bet she’s even now demanding to see someone in charge and wondering aloud why this heaven place is not any better organized than it is, after all this time.”

She was her own woman, and in sense, she managed to outwit even the SSDI. The portrait it provides is seemingly another woman-–and oddly, I find that comforting. I’m glad she’s almost hidden from view.

But maybe someone you’re seeking is hiding too, and you’re not so happy about that. I hope this little piece will spark some thoughts to help you unearth that clever relative of yours who also managed to confound the SSDI. Mom would like that.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through http://www.genetealogy.com, http://www.honoringourancestors.com, and http://megansrootsworld.blogspot.com/.

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35 thoughts on “Using Ancestry.com: SSDI Blues

  1. My father died in 1964, but is not enumerated in the SS index. Is there a reason he is not? I know he was eligible, as my brother received benefits as a minor.

  2. Hi Megan,
    I symathise with you. I lost my wonderful grandmother this year and on a whim I looked up her SSDI record and they recorded her birthdate wrong!! As a good granddaughter I looked into trying to rectify it but stopped when I realized all the red tape it would take to do it! I think that I’ll let her stay hidden too.

  3. Hi Wanda and Elizabeth,

    Wanda, there could be a number of explanations. Sometimes, folks simply aren’t in there — especially those who passed away in the early 1960s (the SSDI mostly starts with listings circa 1962). So it could be that his birth date is wrong, his name is misspelled, he’s listed under just an initial — all sorts of factors. Try searching under his actual SS# if you have it (usually found on the death certificate) or using fewer search paramaters. Wildcards are also a good idea to accommodate unexpected spellings.

    Elizabeth, so you know the feeling, too. My condolences to you on losing your beloved grandmother. I can relate to your experience because — about five years ago — I discovered that Social Security had my birth date wrong (they had reversed the month and day) and it took me a full day to fix it. How ironic it would have been for my own eventual entry to be wrong — especially since I use the SSDI on a daily basis for my research. But still, it’s comforting that some folks are slightly hidden, isn’t it?

    Take care,
    Megan

  4. I so appreciated your article which reflects the frustrations of trying to deal with government records. When my husband was in the Navy a long time ago, I worked for the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia as a typist. It may have seemed a boring job, but I learned that we were encouraged to waste time, and look busy so that our supervisors would need lots of people under them, which would give them higher ratings and salaries. The department was
    Excess Material, which employed hundreds of people getting rid of billions of dollars that the
    govt had purchased and didn’t need.
    That sounds like a digression from your Social Security search, but having worked in such a place, I am curious what my own records look like. While I’m still alive. Is there a source for checking up on them, aside from my existing Social Security correspondence?

    Another question–I purchased by catalog a WW2 Army helmet from the Phillipines. Actually,
    at that early stage of the war, they were still using WW1 helmets. I didn’t expect it to look so
    lived in–and I wondered if the soldier had lived through his battle or been made a prisoner. There is a name inside the helmet. An unusual name. I thought if his family would want it, I’d like to send it. But I don’t know how to locate that history, or his family. Any suggestions?
    I do appreciate what you write–it is like being a Sherlock Holmes. FB

  5. Megan,
    That was a well written article on the SSDI. Sorry to hear that you lost your Mother; but you wrote a nice summary of her that will help others at the same time.

  6. Megan, Sorry to hear of the loss of your mother. I remember the first time I saw my Mom’s listing. It truly bothered me for a while.
    I was going to ask much the same question as Wanda. My first husband died in 1963 and he isn’t listed in SSDI although my children received benefits. I’m hoping to find his info because we know so little of his parents.
    Thanks so much for all your wonderful information.
    I enjoy your column so much.

  7. Hi Megan,
    I lost my mom eight years ago — it still feels like yesterday, so my heart goes out to you. I have learned to rejoice in all the good things she taught me and how I see a lot of her in me and my niece.

    I have found that sometimes people are not on SSDI because they worked for the railroad and their benefits were paid from the RRB (Railroad Retirement Board). Also, birthdates can be “wrong” because folks advanced their ages at some point to go to work younger during the depression or WWII, so when their birth certificate had been changed, they had to use the altered birthdate on their SSI application, not the actual one.

  8. Megan—

    My condolences on your mother’s passing. It’s not always easy to view online records of people we’ve actually known. My mother’s record in the SSDI reports her statistics accurately, but every time I see it I’m reminded that her death date was also my younger son’s fourth birthday. It brings her passing back into high relief.

    I’ve had experience with inaccurate records though. My grandfather MacLaughlan’s social security application is riddled with inaccuracies…ones that he deliberately introduced to hide his background. Has I not run across an elderly cousin who still remembers his hijinks, I might still be searching for Scottish roots instead of Danish!

  9. Hi Megan,
    Just read your SSDI Blues, interesting since I’m an army brat and my mother’s family is from Jersey & I can’t find anything on that side of the family from there, it’s as tho that didn’t exist. Any in depth ideas on how to track? Thanks Sharon

  10. Hello Megan,

    Your story about your mother’s SS entry was very interesting. At least her answers made sense. My great aunt will drive her des
    cendants crazy because her SSDI entry is a pack of lies. She came to this country shorly after the end of WWI and I imagine she was trying to hide her German backround so every entry in the census and SS records are different and untrue.

    My sympathies for your loss.

    Valerie

  11. My sincere condolences on your mother’s passing, Megan. I felt the same way when I first saw my mother’s and my father’s names in the SSDI even though they died before I became interested in genealogy in a formal way.

    For a few New Jersey people who got their Social Security number back around the time it first started, I’ve found the state of issue to be New York where they were employed.

    Thank you for your always interesting columns.

  12. Thanks for a truly eye opener article about finding records. I’m new to this “game” – so appreciate your input and suggestions.

  13. I DO have a few records (source documents) like birth certificates, naturalization certificates, documents from the recoder’s office etc. etc. that I would like to scan and incorporate into my family tree.
    Is there a “Help” e-mail address I can turn to to find an answer from ancestry.com? I looked everywhere, but could not find one.
    Your help is appreciated.

  14. Very very sorry about your loss… I had the same problem the first time I saw my father’s entry… We are all one genealogical family, aren’t we?

  15. I am so sorry to hear of your Mother’s passing. She was too young by today’s standards. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

    The reason so many people do not show up in the SSDI is that they were not receiving benefits at the time of their death. Only those who werre receiving benefits at the time of their death are listed.
    I hope this helps.

  16. Please accept my sympathies for your loss, Megan, and my admiration for a well-written article.

    My own mother, who passed away about 12 years ago, is not listed in the SSDI, and it took me a while to figure out why. When I felt comfortable enough asking my father, he reminded me that her profession was exempt from the provisions of the Social Security system, and that was the reason I could not find her listed.

  17. What a lovely tribute to your mother. I certainly relate to your pain even after five years. At least it gets softer and sweeter.

  18. Yes, that article hit right on the nose. My first cousin was born in Buffalo NY. His father moved out west decades ago, and Mike spent his whole life in California, Nevada, and finally Colorado. After his wife died, he moved back to NY state. He lived in Jamestown NY (90 miles south of Buffalo) for two months before dying of cancer. I use him as an example in talks that I give, where a person was born one place, died nearby to that, and spent 60 years living elsewhere. There would be a lot of red herrings if you didn’t know the real history of what occurred – just think of the 1940-2000 census being released over the next few decades showing someone with that name but no apparent connection to Buffalo. (BTW, his father died mysteriously in prison and the one person who knows that story (his sister, my aunt) won’t breathe a word.)
    Since the surname is unusual you can guess that there “must” be a connection, but with a more common name, you’d be up the creek.

  19. Megan, I am sorry for the loss of your mom. Thank you for writing about her, it must have been difficult yet wonderful at the same time.

    My mom passed away nearly five years ago and I think about her everyday. I did the same as you, checked SSDI for her name quite soon after she had gone. Even still, it was a shock to see her name.

    My mom’s father has an interesting SSDI story but need to provide a bit of background info first. Mom was adopted when she was nine months old. We did not find her birth family until she was 70 years old at which time mom met her sister, her sister’s children and one of her brother’s children. My brother and I suddenly had 12 first cousins after growing up with no cousins!

    The information mom’s father wrote on his SSDI application led us on a merry goose chase (he was “creative” with his birth location and birth year) but eventually we found him in the 1950′s and up to his death in 1989. Such a small world, he is buried not 10 minutes from where my best friend lives and less than two hours from my home. Mom and I visited his grave many times to place flowers, sometime I continue to do.

    Thanks again for writing about your mom and for your various articles and columns.

  20. Megan, Thanks for another great article. I know the feelings you are having. I lost my father last January. I lost my mom 31 years ago and I guess I thought my dad would live forever.
    I not only learn things from your articles, which I love to read, but from some of the comments, also. Comment #15 made so much sense. My father showed up within just a couple of months, but I never have found my mother on the SSDI.
    Now I know why! My folks owned their own business and, of course, all the SS was filed under my father’s name and my mother never collected anything.

  21. # 15 is mis-informed. My mother passed away at 49, never having collected SS and my husband passed away at 52, again, never having collected SS. Both are in the SSDI.

    However; I had to get my husband declared “dead” a second time. Somehow, for unknown reasons by unknown persons, my husband came back to “life” about 3 years after he passed away. The death benefits had been paid out at his death, but it never crossed my mind when SS statements started arriving again, that it was not normal for me to receive these statements. A relative told me to start checking into this and when I did, I found out he wasn’t shown as dead any longer. It took me almost two months to get him declared deceased again.

  22. Until some time in the 1960′S Government employees, both Military and Civil Service Federal and Local were not covered by Soc.Sec. My Dad ,who was both Federal And NY CITY EMPLOYEE WAS JUST APPLYING FOR sOCIAL sECURITY DUE TO START mARCH 1, 1957. hE DIED fEB 23,1957 AND MY mOM AT 65 HAD TO WORK FOR 6 qUARTERS TO RECEIVE ANY BENEFITS ON HER OWN. dAD IS NOT LISTED IN ssdi BUT mOM IS.

  23. Megan,

    I previously worked for Social Security so I can give you some information.

    Anyone who worked for themselves and did not pay into the SS system will not be listed. Many people who applied for a card in the early years used a nick name, a middle name as their first name, initials only, advanced their age, didn’t know where they were born, etc. They were given a card on the information they supplied. In the early 80′s SS began requiring a certified copy of their birth certificate for a card. About 200, IRS began a match-up with married names and refused refunds if they did not match, so records should begin to match in future years.

    Very sorry about your mother. I have also looked up my parents, grandparents and other relatives. Any record is only as good as the informer choose, as you have pointed out to us many times.

  24. These records can supply unusual clues. My mother-in-law’s SS aplication gave us some unexpected information. Her last name was listed as Rehm, this was crossed out and her maiden name of Gunkel was circled. We wondered if Mom had been married before she married Dad. Where did the name Rehm come from? No one in the family seemed to know. A look at her mother’s burial record explained it. Her mother had remarried – to Philip Rehm – when Mom was young. She apparently causally took on his last name though he never adopted her or her siblings. When we realized Philip Rehm was my husband’s step grandfather he was shocked. He had know this man as a lad but the man never spoke to him, never gave him the time of day, even though Philip lived with my husband’s great uncle (Philip’s brother-in-law). It took some work but we finally were able to piece together another part of Mom’s life. So keep digging even when it makes no sense.

  25. Megan- I’m so sorry for your loss. My quest to complete my family background after my mother died in 2004 is what started this for me…my father’s been gone since 1999.

    You WILL start to remember the good times and feel less sad as time goes by.

    Thank you once again for a wonderful article with food for thought, written in an approachable, friendly style that’s easy to identify with and follow.

  26. Wow, the responses here both humble and educate me. Thank you so much for sharing all your kind thoughts and clever ideas. And thanks as well to all those who have written to me privately.

    I think what I’d like to do is write a follow-up article featuring some of the examples that folks have given, but I’ll wait a little bit, so feel free to post additional experiences.

    Thanks once again to everyone for your comforting words. As Sandra (#14) so aptly put it above, “We are all one genealogical family, aren’t we?”

  27. I lost my mom many years ago, I still miss her, but how wonderful to be filled with so many memories. I still say my mom used to —-
    We are trying to locate the death certificate for my husbands father or any information that can lead us to additional information. My husband did not know his father but with the information we have we know, according to the SSDI he died in 1969, he was born in 1907, last known address El Paso TX. Checking with El Paso and Texas, they do not have any information on him. Also checked the papers for obituaries and the phone book for the 5 years preceeding his death.
    We also have a copy of his SS application so we are sure this is him.
    Is there any way we can find out who submitted the information to SSA, or who received the death benefit. We are at a stand still without this information. Please help.

  28. Megan,

    Please accept my condolescences also on the passing of your dear mother. From all of the references you have made about her, she has truly been a great friend, confidante and supporter to you, as well as being a very special mother.

    Thanks so much for your article. And also all of the comments referring to it. I’ve not had very good luck in looking up information re SSDI. I haven’t found my father, although all of his brothers are there. After reading the various comments, I realize that there are additional ways of working there. However, I’ll probably hold off for a little longer. I also lost my very special mother a few months ago, although it feels like only yesterday. It is so difficult, when coming across another bit of information, not being able to call up my most trusted companion to say, “Hey, guess what I just found out!” However, I am finally getting around to sharing my latest find with her in my heart.

    Thanks to your article and all of the comments, I will try researching SSDI again sometime in the somewhat near future. All of these comments are helping me cope with my loss, also.

  29. It may interest the author to know that SSDI, may fit the agency she is talking about…but officially “SSDI” refers to “Social Security Disability Insurance”. It is use to discuss the disability status of US Citizens no longer able to work due to a physical and/or mental disability.

  30. After hearing you speak at the FGS luncheon, I had to check this out. It is very touching to see the confirmation, once again, of how we connect to one another’s lives through our research into births, marriages, and most especially, deaths. Our extended family grows as we research, and with blogs like this, we extend our connections to those we’ve never met.

    My sincere sympathies to all of you who have shared Megan’s experience and mine of finding a beloved parent in a harsh and indifferent index. It’s a blow to the solar plexus.

    This topic connects to a frustration which bugs me endlessly: how errors on the internet have eternal life! Doesn’t it annoy you every time you see postings made by distant relatives giving the wrong death year and place, or providing creative but untrue stories about your close relatives? GRRRRR.

    Kathy

  31. I have discovered that the best way to assure the SSI information to be correct is to deliver the SSI card directly to the nearest Social Security Office within a short time after the death of the person. At that time, the record can be reviewed for the correct entries, starting with the original application for registration and ending with the correct date of death and other information. I am certain that the listing in the Index is the result of transcribing the info on hand, as supplied, to the published data we all are using for reference. Not many of the Incorrect final entries are the result of mistakes by data entry clerks. And there are any number of opportunities to correct misinformation when payments begin in later life. The return of the card also serves the purpose of terminating the monthly payments and having under-over payments settled with the agency. The final payment is seldom exact.

  32. I, like you, looked up my Dad, who died last summer. I mean, I knew he was dead, but it was so “official” and sad to find him on the SSDI about 3 months later.

  33. Megan,

    It has been at least two decades since I last saw your mom, but I can still hear her voice in my head. Did she leave a lasting impression on me? You bet.

    Her gravelly voice (“Oh Megan..”) and hearty laugh (she seemed to find some of my jokes amusing) came into my head when I read your re-posting.

    We really do not know the impact that we individually have on the world. Your mom was one of a kind, and is missed by all who knew her. Even me — your college friend who visited her office with you only a few times.

    Best,
    Paul

  34. I’m glad you explained how you felt about this. My grandfather just died a few months ago. He was like a father to me. Because of this post I got the guts to look him here. Sure enough, he was there. Not hidden like yours, but for the Scot that he was he was very comfortable with who he was. Everyone knew. I’m not surprised that this is any different.

    Thanks for the prompt.
    Your FH friend bending over backwards on Facebook,
    ~Jillian~

  35. Loved reading about your Mom. My mom didn’t work enough years and pay into social security for a long enough time to get any payments. She had three children. She worked for a few years in a factory and at the local school as a janitor. She worked as a beauty shop owner, married 2 years to her first husband and under 5 years to her second husband. Worked as a teacher in at a university when she was woking toward her Masters degree and then had to have open heart surgery three times. Most of her jobs did not count toward social security but she has a social security card so will be in the index when the time comes.

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