Thursday, February 2, 2012
The Social Security Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee held a hearing today about the proposed Keeping IDs Safe Act sponsored by U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX). The purpose of the hearing today was to discuss the history, accuracy, use and impacts of the Death Master File along with options for change. There were six testimonies heard by various parties, including the commissioner and the inspector general of the Social Security Administration (SSA), as well as representatives from the National Consumers League, National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, and the Consumer Data Industry Association. There was also a parent of a deceased child whose social security number was used fraudulently on a tax return, which is the incident that started the ball rolling for this proposed legislation. The parent speaking at the hearing was Jonathan Eric Agin, an attorney practicing in Washington, DC. The testimonies of all parties were rather interesting and somewhat educational. All testimonies can be found on the Ways and Means Committee website.
Although my rant from a few weeks ago may seem like there is no room for compromise, I do believe that some compromises can be made. This would be preferable over the total elimination of access to the SSDI. However, I would first like to address some issues I have with solutions being raised by genealogists that may not be the most logical solutions to the problem.
Some are arguing that the IRS should be able to use the SSDI to prevent indentity theft and flag a return for a deceased person. As an accountant, I can tell you that while this can be done, a deceased person being listed as a dependent or a spouse on a tax return can be perfectly legit. You are permitted to claim your deceased child as a dependent in the year of death. You are also permitted to file as married filing jointly in the year your spouse dies, and in some cases, you can file as a surviving spouse for two years after your spouse's death. So, just because a deceased person is listed on a tax return does not automatically make it fraudulent. I suppose the return could still be flagged for further investigation by an IRS auditor, but my concern is that the investigation of every single deceased person on a tax return would hold up the processing of thousands of perfectly legit returns.
Some have also suggested linking children's social security numbers to the social security numbers of parents. If the children claimed on the return are not linked to the parents, then a flag would be assigned to the return. This can be done as well, but families can be very dynamic. For instance, perhaps a child is being claimed by a grandparent or aunt/uncle this year because they have been supporting the child rather than the parents. Perhaps the child is adopted this year, or is a foster child. There are also all the cases of divorce and remarriage to consider. Again, I think this has the possibility of holding up perfectly legit returns from being processed.
All that being said, I still think access to the SSDI should be made available to those who have a legitimate need for it, including financial institutions, government agencies, and genealogists. I believe it would be reasonable to redact the social security number for at least three to five years after death. I also believe it would be reasonable to make it a paid-only database on genealogy websites. At least this way, there may be a credit card trail back to the paid user of the site. Though I will say that if the person is stealing social security numbers from the SSDI for fraudulent use on tax returns, there is a large chance he/she would use a fraudulent credit card if it was necessary to pay for the information. Ancestry.com has responded by making its database for paid members only and by removing social security numbers for those deceased in the last 10 years. GenealogyBank responded by removing all social security numbers, regardless of year of death, even for paid members.
I would like to respond to Mr. Agin's argument that genealogists do not need access to his daughter's birth or death information. Yes, this is true. I do not need access to her information in particular. His argument, however, is weak because from what I understand, this bill is not about allowing a parent of a deceased child to request the child's information be removed from the SSDI. The bill is about preventing the sale of the Death Master File (the source for the SSDI) to commercial agencies. Well, if the complete Death Master File cannot be sold to commercial agencies, like Ancestry.com, then my ability to conduct genealogical research on my ancestors is severely limited.
Mr. Agin also states that it should not be hard to confirm or disprove a familial connection to someone born just six years ago. I agree. God forbid that if one of my younger family members died, I would not need the SSDI to prove the connection. In fact, the SSDI alone does not prove any connection whatsoever, as parents' names are not listed. For purposes of documenting proof of the death, I would probably use the obituary and my personal knowledge as a source. If it was a close family member, I would also use the death certificate. However, let me explain a few other situations where the SSDI can be useful to a genealogist in proving a connection and finding living family members.
Let's say you have a known ancestor named John Smith, a very common name. You know that he died on a particular date and in a particular location because you have his death certificate. Unfortunately, the informant on the death certificate did not know his parents' names. His social security number is not listed on the death certificate either. You do not have a birth certificate because he was born before they were required by law, or maybe he was an immigrant ancestor, and you don't know his exact origins. His parents are not listed on the marriage certificate. Nor are they mentioned in any court case, probate record, or will left behind by John. You are trying to determine his parents' names and his exact origins. Wait, you have just discovered that he is listed in the SSDI at Ancestry.com! Because of this, you are able to obtain his social security number and request a copy of his SS-5 application that he filled out to request a social security number. If you had not been able to obtain his social security number from the SSDI, you may not have been able to order his SS-5 because his name is so common. Assuming this ancestor was born over 100 years ago (due to recent changes in the rules about parents' names being redacted on the SS-5), now you have his parents' names and his birthplace in the Old Country. You can now find a whole new generation of family and gain a sense of self by knowing where your ancestor originated.
The SSDI is also useful for finding ancestors who may have died in a place other than their last known residence. This is especially true when an ancestor lost touch with living relatives and moved to another part of the country. Recently, Linda over at Flipside posted about her grandmother's niece who was found in census records and city directories from 1930 to the 1950s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She finally located a close match in the SSDI with nearly the same name and the exact same birthdate, indicating that the last known address was in Louisiana. Who would have thought to look in Louisiana for a death certificate since her last know residence, according to living relatives and other available sources, was Pittsburgh? In fact, Louisiana does not have public access to a death index for deaths less than 50 years ago, so it would have been nearly impossible for her to even locate the date of death, even if Linda had known to look in Louisiana. Now, because of the SSDI, she can at least find an obituary to confirm if this is her grandmother's niece and decide whether or not to make contact with any of the listed survivors. If her grandmother's niece died in Louisiana, Linda may be able to obtain a death certificate, depending on whether or not she meets the requirements imposed by the state. This is all thanks to the SSDI!
When I was searching for my grandfather in the SSDI, I found that his SSN was issued in Ohio. I would have never guessed that he lived in Ohio. As far as I knew, he had lived in Michigan, Florida, and Canada. Now I know that I should order his SS-5 to find out what he was doing in Ohio. The SS-5 should list his Ohio employer. I may not have ordered his SS-5 if I hadn't known his number was issued in Ohio because sometimes the SS-5 does not provide any more pertinent information than can be found on a death certificate or in an obituary.
For me, genealogy is not just a "hobby." It is my main activity I participate in besides my profession as an accountant. It's a lifestyle. I define myself as a genealogist, even more so than as an accountant. It's hard to explain to non-genealogists like Mr. Agin how it makes me feel when I discover a new branch of the family tree, or a tidbit of information about an ancestor not previously known to me. That's why I created this blog: to try to communicate to others the joy of genealogical research. The feelings expressed by celebrities discovering their ancestors on the television show Who Do You Think You Are? are real. That's often the same way that I feel, and I have been doing this kind of research for over 10 years. Completely eliminating access to the SSDI will not stop me from being able to do my research, but it will cause a large barrier, especially for my research in states that do not have public death indexes available. I'm not sure how many branches of family trees will be lost if SSDI access is eliminated.