One of the most useful (and underutilized) modern documents for U.S. genealogy is the Application for Social Security Account number, or Form SS-5. Formed in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for alleviating the devastation of the Great Depression, the Social Security Administration is a program to which all working American citizens contribute via taxes, and to which they are entitled in the event of death, disability, and other such circumstances.
Today, Americans are generally issued a number and a card at birth or upon becoming a citizen. In the past, however, having a number was not mandatory, and many people only signed up as adults. Then, as now, the process of obtaining a number and a card began with filling out the Form SS-5, and thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, these documents are available to the public for a fee (with some privacy restrictions for more recent entries).
This form, completed by the person requesting a Social Security number, includes:
- his or her name at the time of the application
- address at the time of the application
- his or her name at birth
- age and date of birth
- place of birth
- father’s full name
- mother’s full name (including maiden name)
- gender and race (or “color”)
- depending on when the form was completed, the occupation and even the employer of the applicant may be on the SS-5 as well
The two reasons that we most commonly request an SS-5 is to learn the maiden name of a married woman, and to learn the names of the parents of the applicant. There are very few documents which provide the maiden name of a person’s mother, making this simple form an extremely valuable tool.
Applying for a Form SS-5 is simple. Assuming that the person is deceased, you can use the online form, available here, to request a copy of the SS-5 from the Social Security Administration. You do not need to know the Social Security number of the individual, but if you do, it will save you $2 from the base fee of $29 for the document.
If the person is recently deceased you will need to provide evidence of his or her death. This requires that you use the mail-in option since you will need to include a copy of the death certificate, an obituary, etc. The mail-in form is available here.
There are two important rules to keep in mind when you order a copy of someone’s SS-5. The Social Security Administration clearly states that:
We use the “120 year rule” when disclosing information from our records for extremely aged persons when no date of death exists. We normally do not assume that an individual is deceased without proof of death (e.g., death certificate, obituary, newspaper article, or police report).
This is a simple reminder that if your subject was born fewer than 120 years ago (in or after 1896), you probably ought to use the paper application and provide the death information we discussed above.
The second rule is in regards to redacting the names of the parents. According to the Social Security Administration:
[U]nder our current policy, we do not release the parents’ names unless they are proven deceased, have a birth date more than 120 years ago, or the number holder on the SS-5 is at least 100 years of age.
All of these rules are designed to prevent identity theft, which we can all appreciate, but sometimes they are a bit frustrating. Recently I requested the SS-5 for a woman who was born in 1916 and who had died in 2010. I provided evidence of the woman’s death, and received a very polite letter telling me that the names of her parents had been redacted as “they may still be living.”
I didn’t know the names of her parents, which was the whole purpose of acquiring the SS-5. How do I prove that they are dead if I don’t know who they are? A little outside-the-box-thinking and common sense provided the answer.
Since the woman was born in 1916, it was reasonable to assume that her parents had been born in 1900 or earlier.
The applicant was born in Brooklyn, New York, so it is likely that her parents were living in the United States, possibly in Brooklyn or the state of New York, until their deaths.
If they were still alive, they would be over 116 years old.
My question then, was how many people living in the United States are 116 years old or older?
People who are 110 years or older are referred to as “supercentenarians,” and are well-documented. A quick Google search provided me with a Wikipedia article and list of people in this country who have attained at least 100 years of age. There are more than you might think. However, only one woman, Susannah Mushatt Jones, is 116 years old.
Susannah is an African American woman who was born in Alabama and currently lives in Brooklyn. This client’s ancestor was a white woman, so the chance that Susannah was the mother of the woman with the redacted SS-5 was almost zero.
I made a copy of the Wikipedia article, noted that the applicant’s parents would have been born in 1900 or earlier, and sent that with an appeal that the Social Security Administration re-evaluate my request. Four weeks later the un-redacted SS-5 arrived, providing the names of the applicant’s parents and allowing us to trace her lineage back to Italy. We may not have proved that they were dead, but we were able to prove that they were not alive.
Sometimes genealogy requires us to think in unconventional ways in order to acquire the information we desire. In this situation, by simply proving that there was no one living in the United States who was old enough to be the father and mother of this woman, we were able to learn the identities of her parents.
If you would like us to help you find your ancestors, or if you would like us to apply some outside-the-box thinking to your brick wall, contact Legacy Tree Genealogists today. The initial consultation is totally free.
 “List of supercentenarians from the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org, accessed February 2016.
 “Susannah Mushatt Jones,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org, accessed February 2016.
Anne Gometz says
Very clever tactics! Thank you for this article.
mark seiden says
unfortunately, in my case, my great grandparents (whose names i am seeking) had my (now long deceased) mother in 1920 and then Hitler got them both or maybe it was influenza for all i know. but because i can’t find out their names, i can’t get my mother’s birth certificate and can’t get my european citizenship recognized. this makes me very grumpy.