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Check out Social Security applications

Few of us remember applying for our Social Security cards, or our parents did it for us, so it might not occur to us that those files hold clues about our heritage.

Here are some key facts on the original application: name of person at birth (so it’s a good source for determining a woman’s maiden name), date and place of birth, father and mother’s full names, employer at the time of the application, and address of the person at the time of the application.

It doesn’t take long to realize these applications hold some valuable genealogical data. Requests for copies of the original applications go to the Social Security Administration, Office of Earnings Operations, FOIA Workgroup, 300 N. Greene St., P. O. Box 33022, Baltimore, Md.

A letter should be addressed to the Freedom of Information Officer and should specify that you’re making the request for the SS-5 (Application for Social Security Card) under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 USC Section 552, for a specifically named individual. The request should list the person’s full name, dates of birth and death, and a Social Security number.

Since the original application of a living person cannot be released, it is a good idea to attach a copy of a death certificate or obituary, or state that you found the Social Security number in the Social Security Death Index.

The cost for the SS-5 is $27. The check should be made payable to the Social Security Administration and mailed with the request. If you don’t know the individual’s Social Security number, make the check for $29 and the office will locate the number.

There are several options for finding the all-important Social Security number. Probably the quickest way to get the number is through the Social Security Death Index. This index is available on two Internet sites, Genealogy Bank and Ancestry. Genealogy Bank (( offers free access to the index, but it doesn’t provide the Social Security number. The best source is to use the index through Ancestry ( This requires a paid subscription or a trip to the library to use the library’s subscription service to Ancestry, but it’s worth the cost or the effort.

Another glitch is that Ancestry will not release the Social Security number for any person who has died in the past decade.

Ancestry advises those searching the index to be as specific as possible in order to avoid a large number of hits for a request. But keep in mind that this can work against you if what you “know” is correct information still doesn’t jibe with what someone has entered into the database.

For example, initially I entered “Sarah E. (for Emaline) Hancock” for the object of my search and gave her last place of residence as Fulton County, Georgia. Sure of my information, I was puzzled when I got no return. After several tweaks on the name I still got no result.

So I tried deleting information that could have been limiting a hit. I was successful after I entered only “Hancock” along with the years of birth and death. Her information came back as Sarah W. (for her maiden name Whiddon) Hancock, last place of residence: Pinellas, Florida.

It helps to know that the information in the death index is accumulated based on a survivor filing for a death benefit or someone notifying the administration of a person’s death in order to stop a benefit check. In this case Sarah had never lived in Florida, but a surviving daughter lived in Pinellas. Apparently in making her notification, she gave an incorrect place of death for her mother or someone entered the information incorrectly into the database.

If a person isn’t listed in the death index, the next step in finding a Social Security number should be to comb through the individual’s personal papers if you or another relative have them. The number probably will be on the person’s death certificate, banking records, voter registration rolls or paperwork from an employer.

Sounds like a lot of rigmarole — plus a fee — just to get a little document, huh? But remember there is genealogical gold in these applications. Social Security benefits began in January 1940, when the first recipient, Ida May Fuller, turned 65. That means recipients were individuals who had been born in the 19th century, before many states required birth certificates. The Social Security application may be the only official record with the person’s date of birth.

Also, it isn’t unusual for the informant for a death certificate not to know the deceased person’s parents’ full names, especially the maiden name of the mother. But these names (supplied directly by the individual) are in the application.

If you think you’ve looked everywhere for these vital genealogical tidbits, you really haven’t until you send that check and request to the Social Security Administration.

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