Social Security Records Offer Alternate Source
By Donna Murray
The Social Security Act was passed in 1935 to provide financial assistance to the elderly and not as a resource for future genealogists to tap. But dedicated rooters know that Social Security card applications may supply elusive data like a mother’s maiden name and that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will disclose a person’s death date and where the last benefit check was mailed.
First a little history. The Social Security Act was signed on August 14, 1935, according to the agency’s web site. The first Social Security Numbers (SSN) were issued in 1936. The government began collecting taxes in 1937. Ernest Ackerman was reportedly the first person to collect benefits. He paid a nickel in Social Security taxes on one day and retired the next. His lump sum benefit totaled 17 cents. From 1937-40, benefits were paid in a lump sum. (See www.socialsecurity.gov/history/hfaq.html and www.socialsecurity.gov/foia/html/foia_guide.htm).
Originally only the worker got benefits. That policy changed in 1939 when the SSA began awarding survivors’ benefits to the spouses and children of workers who paid into Social Security. Since citizenship has never been a requirement to obtain a SSN, anyone who came to this country legally and had permission to work was eligible to apply for a card. There may be records for your immigrant ancestor.
Not all workers contributed to Social Security in the past and some don’t today, according to Andy Hardwick. He responded to questions by email on behalf of the agency’s Baltimore press office. Federal workers hired before 1984 who chose to stay in the Civil Service Retirement System and some state and local employees whose employers have their own pension plans do not contribute to Social Security, said Hardwick. No SSA records exist for anyone who didn’t contribute to the program.
Timelines and qualifications may not make the most titillating reading material, but they are important for knowing what records are actually available. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), you have a right to obtain copies of certain documents. While the SSA won’t release information on living persons without their written consent, dead people have no privacy rights. Therefore the SSA will give you a copy of a deceased person’s Social Security card application upon request.
Applications contain the person’s name, date and place of birth and parents’ names. Citizenship status was added in the 1970s, said Hardwick. (Applications for those born in 1910 or before generally do not include parents’ names or the applicant’s place of birth).
You’ll pay $27 for a copy of the application if you know the individual’s SSN. If not, it will cost you $29 and you must furnish the person’s full name, date and place of birth and parents’ full names so that the record may be located.
The original application card was signed by the applicant. If having a copy of the person’s signature isn’t important to you, request a numident or extract instead. For $18 ($16 if you know the SSN) you get what is essentially a printout of the data appearing on the application.
Perhaps you’re merely looking for a death date or want to know where the decedent lived when he or she collected the last payment. You can ask the SSA to conduct a search. Assuming the individual was a Social Security recipient, the SSA can tell you when he or she died and where the last payment was sent. (The SSA has no death records for anyone who didn’t receive benefits). The cost is $16 or $18.
To request a copy of a person’s Social Security card application, a numident or information about the death of an individual, write to: Social Security Administration, OEO FOIA Workgroup, 300 N. Green St., P.O. Box 33022, Baltimore, MD, 21290. Include a check for the appropriate amount. You may also order online.
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