Problems Solved: Social Security Benefits

Problems Solved: Social Security Benefits

Why you sometimes can't find a birth certificate when you have a Social Security Number.


Q. I thought a birth certificate, even a delayed one, was required to get a Social Security number (SSN). Yet when l find SSNs for deceased family members, I don’t always find birth certificates. Why?

A. When the US Social Security system was established in 1935, people didn’t need to show proof of birth to receive SSNs. In fact, the newly formed Social Security Administration (SSA) <www.ssa.gov> didn’t have local offices, so it contracted with the US Postal Service to handle SSN applications. A person turned in his application, called an SS-5 form, to an employer, letter carrier or post office.

Proof of birth became an issue only when a person wanted to receive Social Security benefits. Then, the person had to show he had indeed reached age 65 and was eligible to collect the benefits. Although some of your relatives may have supplied birth certificates, the SSA also accepted documents such as Bible, baptism and census records as proof of age. The SSA had regulations for “best evidence” documentation, including using records made as soon as possible after birth.

It’s also possible that an ancestor received an SSN, but never applied for benefits. You can request a deceased person’s SS-5 under the Freedom of Information Act. For instructions, visit <www.ssa.gov/foia/foia_guide.htm>.

From the September 2004 Trace Your Family History.

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