Searching the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) in One Step
Frequently Asked Questions

Stephen P. Morse , San Francisco

1. How does your SSDI website differ from the others that are out on the web?

My site doesn't perform the search for you because I don't have a search engine nor do I have a copy of the SSDI data.  Instead I allow you to link to existing sites that do perform the searches.  And for at least one of them I provide added value (see question 11).

2. Why do you link to several different search engines for searching the SSDI?

Because no one search engine supports all the parameters.  The Ancestry engine can do a sounds-like search on the last name, but it can't search for a partial first name of less than three characters.  Same for the Rootsweb engine, but it can do two different kinds of sounds-like searches.  The Lineages engine can search for a partial first name of any length but cannot do a sounds like search on the last name and supports very few other parameters.  The Genealogy engine can do both a sounds-like search on the last name and a search for a partial first name of any length.  The FamilyTreeLegends engine cannot search on a partial first name but it is the only one that can search on the age at death.

The FamilyTreeLegends engine and the Rootsweb engine are the only ones that can search on the place that the last benefit was paid.  And the FamilyTreeLegends engine and the Lineages engine are the only ones that supports a range of years for birth and death.

So your choice of search engine would depend on the type of search that you want to perform.  If you like, you can use one search engine for one search and then easily switch to another search engine for the next.

If I had to make a recommendation, it would be for RootsWeb Plus (see question 11).

[ Second thoughts: The above description of the various search engines is hopelessly out of date, and I have no intentions of revising it.  And RootsWeb Plus is no longer operational.  My new recommendation for a search engine is the new RootsWeb.]

[Third thoughts: As of December 2011, the new RootsWeb search engine for the SSDI was pulled from the web.  That was a big loss because it was by far the best one, and there was no close second.  So I no longer have a recommendation for a search engine, and you must explicitly select a search engine on my form (my form used to default to RootsWeb)

3. Which search parameters are supported by which search engines?

I  created the following chart back in 2002, so by 2010 it had become hopelessly out of date.  Thanks to Pamela Boyer Sayre for updating it.

Ancestry Family
(note 4)
Search 2
(note 4)
(note 4)
NEHGS RootsWeb RootsWeb
(note 4)
(notes 1, 4)
for last name
(note 2) (note 2) (note 2)
soundex none none soundex soundex
last name optional yes yes yes
no yes yes no yes yes yes yes yes
partial last name at least
1st 3 chars
no yes
at least
1st 3 chars
yes yes no no at least
1st 3 chars
yes at least
1st char
for first name
(note 2)
first name optional yes yes yes
yes yes yes no yes yes yes yes yes
partial first name at least
1st 3 chars
no yes
no yes yes start of
name only
no at least
1st 3 chars
yes at least
1st char
middle initial yes no no
yes no yes no no yes yes yes no
middle name yes no no
no no no no no yes yes no no
birth date yes year only
(note 3)
year only
yes yes year only year only no yes yes yes year only
(note 3)
death date yes year only
(note 3)
year only
yes yes year only year only no month and
year only
yes yes year only
(note 3)
range of years no yes yes
yes no yes yes no no yes yes no
age at death no no no
yes no no no no no yes yes no
range of ages no no no
no no no no no no yes no no
soc sec number yes yes no
yes yes yes no yes yes yes yes no
issuer state yes yes no
yes no no no no yes yes yes yes
last residence
yes no no
yes state and
zip only
yes state only yes yes yes yes yes
consulate no no no
no no no no no no yes no no
last benefit no no no
yes no no no no yes yes yes yes
partial zipcode no no no
no no resid only no no no yes no no
shows all matches yes yes yes
yes yes yes only first 75 no yes yes yes yes
displays age no no no
yes no no no no no yes yes no
partial SS number no no no
yes no no no (note 5) no yes no no
hits/page 50 200 variable
(note 7)
10 10 10 75 10 (note 6) 20 variable variable 25

note 1:  See question 11 for a discussion of RootsWeb Plus.
note 2:  Finds similar names but does not use soundex.  For example, searching for Mors will find Moore.
note 3:  Can specify either a birth date or a death date but not both
note 4: No longer exists
note 5: Can omit either the second or third fields of social security number but not both
note 6: Can be increased to 25 or 50 after first search
note 7: Applies to first page of results only

4. What is soundex?

Soundex involves assigning a numeric code to a name based on its pronunciation.  Names that have similar pronunciations would be given the same code. A soundex search would return all names having the same soundex code as the desired name.  So such a search would return the all names that exactly match the desired name as well as all similar sounding names.

5. What is metaphone?

Metaphone is an alternate sounds-like search that is supported by some of the search engines.  Unlike soundex which encodes on a letter-by-letter basis, metaphone encodes groups of letters.  As such, it more accurately embodies the rules of English pronunciation.

6. My aunt died a few years ago but I can't find her record in the database.  Is this a complete list of everyone who died?

When a person dies, the funeral home or the family sends in a form to notify the Social Security Administration about the death.  Usually the person is entered in the SSDI database at that time.  However every month the Social Security Administration runs a program to check for all death certificates issued that month.  If it finds out about the death from this program prior to being notified about the death by the funeral home or family member, then the person's name will never appear in the SSDI.  I know, this sounds very strange, and the logic behind it escapes me.  But I have been told this by a Social Security employee, and I have no reason to doubt him.

Of course even if the proper notification was made to the Social Security Administration, it might take a few months before the online versions of the SSDI database are updated to include that death.

7. My father died in 1950 and the Social Security Administration was notified punctually, but I can't find his record.  Are the earlier records missing?

Many deaths in the 1950s are not in the SSDI because they were recorded in an old format.  However you can obtain these records by calling the Social Security Administration directly on their toll-free number at 1-800-772-1213.

8. Are the databases used by the different search engines the same?

In theory the answer is yes since they all get their data from the same source -- namely the Social Security Administration.  Of course there might be a different delay in the various search engines in when they update their database, so one might be more recent than another (see question 10 for more details).  But that's only temporary.  Other than the updating, the only difference between the search engines is the parameters that they search on.

9. Once I find the record, how do I obtain the actual document?

You can obtain the original social security application by writing to the Social Security Administration at the following address:

Social Security Administration
OEO FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Greene Street
P.O. Box 33022
Baltimore, Maryland 21290-3022
You can obtain either a photocopy of the original application (currently $27, used to be only $7) or an abbreviated printout ($16).

10 How frequently is this data updated and how recent is it?

The Social Security Administration generates updates monthly.  Of course it's up to the individual search engine as to how frequently they chose to update their database.  To get an idea of how frequently each one does it, here is some empirical results based on searching for SMITH at the date of this writing (May 19, 2005).  The most recent entries that I found for each search engine are as follows:

Ancestry April 2005
Family Search January 2005
Family Tree Legends September 2003
Genealogy November 1997
Lineages -- no longer online --
NE Ancestors April 2005
RootsWeb April 2005

11. What is RootsWeb Plus?

As discussed in questions 2 and 3, no search engine is perfect.  Each has a different flaw.  RootsWeb Plus is my attempt to generate one search engine that combines the desirable features of all the others.

I used the RootsWeb search engine as my starting point.  However RootsWeb has the following failings:

Requires at least three characters for a partial first name or partial last name
Does not allow you to search on a range of birth years or a range of death years
Does not allow you to search on age at death
Does not allow you to specify a foreign last residence
Does not allow you to specify the day of month for the death (does allow it for birth)
Does not allow you specify how many hits you want displayed per page
Does not display the age as part of the results
So I developed my own software that modifies the behavior of the RootsWeb search engine in order to rectify the above defects.  I call that RootsWeb Plus.

However a caveat is in order.  The way my software searches on birth and death ranges is to do repeated searches for each year in the range.  Same for partial first and last names of less than three characters.  If you use too many of these features together, the number of repeated searches can get quite large and the time taken might get prohibitive.  So use these combinations prudently.

[Second thoughts: Rootsweb started blocking my IP address so I am no longer able to offer RootsWeb Plus.]

-- Steve Morse