Research Note: A Bit of Info about SSDI

A poster on the APG public mailing list recently asserted that she had come across an error in the date of death listed for a person on the SSDI. She questioned how this could happen when the entry was supposedly verified by a family member.  In response another poster said that as far as she knew, the Social Security Administration does not accept death reports from private individuals.

Unfortunately, the second poster’s information that SSA does not accept death reports from private individuals is incorrect.

it is useful to understand what we refer to as the Social Security Death Index is and is not.  For the best understanding of just about anything, an old rule that we baby boomers learned in the 1960s applies: go right to the source and ask the horse!

As a result of a [1980] Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, SSA maintains a record of reported deaths known as the DMF.  The terms of the related consent judgment required that SSA make available to the [public], the SSN, surname, and date of death of deceased numberholders.  As of June 2007, the DMF database contained detailed information on more than 82 million numberholders.  SSA provides DMF data to the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS).  NTIS, in turn, sells the DMF data to customers we broadly categorize as follows: (1) Federal, State, and local government customers; (2) industry customers including financial, investigative, credit reporting, and medical research organizations; and (3) public customers, including genealogists, individuals, etc.  Customers can purchase the complete data file for $1,725 and subscribe to monthly electronic updates for another $2,600.  The electronic updates provide subscribers with DMF additions, corrections, and deletions.

[Source:Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General, Quick Response Evaluation:Sources of Erroneous Death Entries Input to the Death Master File, Audit Report Number A-06-09-29095, February 4, 2009 (available at]

The DMF is not available directly from SSA. That which we civilians refer to as the SSDI (Social Security Death Index) is one of the commercially repackaged versions of the DMF that a vendor has obtained from the NTIS.

The DMF contains nearly 89,000,000 records of Social Security recipients who have passed away since 1936. Most of these records date from 1962 to the present.

Each year SSA adds more than 2 million records to the file. The records include both beneficiary and non-beneficiary records and verified and non-verified data. Sources of death data are: family members; funeral homes; States, Federal agencies (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Department of Veteran’s Affairs, etc.), postal authorities, institutions and internal sources from SSA’s payment records. Ninety percent of the file includes reports from family members and funeral homes.

[Source: Ray Wessmiller, Using Audit Software and the Death Master File to Catch Crooks, Newsletter of the Information Systems And Audit Control Association – National Capital Area chapter, September 2002, available at

As depicted on the chart below, SSA receives most death reports from funeral homes or friends/relatives of the deceased.  SSA considers such first party death reports to be verified and immediately posts them to the DMF.

Sources of DMF Info[Source: Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General, Benefit Payments in Instances Where the Social Security Administration Removed a Death Entry from the Beneficiary’s Record,  Audit Report Number A-06-07-27156, June 19, 2008, available at].

So indeed most death reports come from private individuals.  In our next post will talk about how the SSA verifies DMF information and how you can correct errors if you find them in the SSDI.


3 Responses to “Research Note: A Bit of Info about SSDI”

  • Mike Gorham says:

    This explanation is the most concise and topical definition that I have read RE: SSDI. I refer to your view frequently when I am speaking with family members and friends in regards to the SSDI. Of course, with the recent changes to the DMF, subsequently the SSDI, sadly, it is even more topical than ever. It took me months and months of research to come to the near same conclusion as you’ve written in several paragraphs, AND I have used forms of the SSDI for many years. I was always aware of the deficiencies in SSA’s database. Yet, that is to be expected, given the breadth and size of the data. Yes, and who does the entries!

  • Interesting, I had no idea how deaths were reported to the SSA. Coincidentally, my state has its own death index (partly available online for free, but has a more complete version), which I’ve found to be slightly more accurate than the SSDI. In numerous cases, the dates differ by one day, and the state database was confirmed by other sources. Another aspect is that SSDI doesn’t necessarily list the place of death, only the last residence, which might be far from where they actually died.

  • Hi Craig ~ Thanks so much for this information. I always feel so much smarter after I read something you’ve written!! Not sure that I am, but at least briefly I FEEL smarter :-)

    Oh, PS ~ I LOVED Mr. Ed!!

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