Tuesday, June 28, 2011

SSDI: Ancestry.com vs. FamilySearch.org

I mentioned last time some of the shortcomings of the Social Security Index (SSDI). See How Reliable is the SSDI?

Consider the “Verified or Proven” code supplied by the Social Security Administration in the public Death Master File. The code indicates that a record in the SSDI has been verified or a death certificate has proven the death information. Neither Ancestry.com nor FamilySearch.org display this

Example SSDI record from Ancestry.com
Example SSDI record from Ancestry.com


 Example SSDI record from FamilySearch.org
Example SSDI record from FamilySearch.org

This table compares the fields from the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File1 displayed by Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.

Field Ancestry.com FamilySearch.org
1. Change status: Record has been added, changed, or deleted Not applicable Not applicable
2. Social Security Number Displayed
and used to derive the “State [and] (Year) SSN issued”
and used to derive the “place of issuance”
3. Last Name Concatenated fields 3-6 Listed separately
4. Name Suffix Concatenated fields 3-6 Listed separately
5. First Name Concatenated fields 3-6 Listed separately
6. Middle Name Concatenated fields 3-6 Listed separately
7. Verify or Proof code Not displayed Not displayed
8. Date of Death (in MMDDYYYY format) Ancestry.com reformatted the date to genealogical standard, with month abbreviated. FamilySearch reformatted the date to genealogical standard, month not abbreviated.
9. Date of Birth (in MMDDYYYY format) Same as death date Same as death date
and used to calculate
“estimated age at death”
10. State/Country of Residence (for deaths reported before 2/88) I was not able to tell if either vendor uses this information I was not able to tell if either vendor uses this information
11. Zip code, Last Residence Displayed
and used to calculate city, state, country
and used to calculate city, state
12. Zip code, Lump Sum Payment Displayed as “Last Benefit”
and used to calculate city, state, country
Not displayed
13. Citation. The source of each record is not specified in the DMF, so websites can not give record level source-of-the source citations. Displayed record-level and collection level citations Not displayed


2. It is nice that Ancestry.com displayed information for both when and where the number was issued. This may help place the person at a particular time and place. Remember that issuance date and state is derived and is subject to error. And remember that the state is not necessarily where the recipient resided.

FamilySearch displayed the field names in all lowercase. There are two established standards (title style and sentence style) for capitalizing titles in the English language and FamilySearch deviates from both. Is there a good reason for that? I would have thought that mixed case would be easier to comprehend. (See my “Indexing Errors: Test, Check the Boxes.”)

3 through 6. There are instances where websites should not manipulate information before display; they always seem to screw up one or more records. I think name concatenation is pretty safe; I like it because I can comprehend the names on Ancestry.com much easier than FamilySearch’s non-concatenated names.

7. Failure to display the Verify or Proof Code is a major flaw in both websites. Even though more than 90% of the deaths are not verified, for times that there is verification or proof of death, that is important to know. If you want to see this field, you can use RootsWeb.com.

8. Ancestry.com abbreviated month names. I know Mills citation style recommends spellings them out in citations. Does BCG have a recommend? In columnar lists of results, Ancestry.com utilizes the screen real estate better than FamilySearch, in part by using abbreviations. (See below.)

image image
I prefer Ancestry.com’s columnar lists over FamilySearch’s.
FamilySearch wastes a lot of space.

9. When a birth date is present, FamilySearch estimates the age at death. That’s a great practice. I predict you’ll see Ancestry.com add this same feature once today’s article alerts them of the possibility.

11. Both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch use the field title supplied in the DMF, but I question the title of this field. According to other sources this field is the last address on record. I’m guessing that it is actually the last mailing address associated with the account. I get an annual statement from the SSA; don’t you? I’m guessing it is often not the last residence. It could be a post office box, or the address of a relative or legal guardian.

12. Would someone tell me what a “lump sum payment” is? I’m guessing that monthly SSI or retirement benefits are not lump sum benefits. If that is the case, then Ancestry.com has mislabeled this field.

For both 11 and 12, keep in mind that the only information supplied in the DMF is the zip code. The zip codes in the DMF are not changed as zip code assignments change over time, so these websites might be showing incorrect information. Take the example of Donald N. Sider, shown in the list results above. (I wonder if we’re related!? My side of the family changed our name from “N’Sider” to “Insider” when we immigrated to Fantasyland from Frontierland.)

Donald N. Sider’s last residence was zip code 33413. According to the U.S. Postal Service, 33413 currently applies to both West Palm Beach and Greenacres, Florida. Ancestry.com displayed one of the two, West Palm Beach. FamilySearch did not display either city, but did display the county.

13. I’ll review the citations later in a separate article. Stay tuned…


     1.  National Technical Information Service, “Death Master File Record Format,” NTIS [Death Master File website] (https://dmf.ntis.gov : accessed 15 June 2011), select “Record Layout.”


  1. A quick google seems to indicate that a lump sum payment is made to a living spouse or eligible child (i.e. a minor child?) So if there is a lump sum payment the most likely scenario is that there was a surviving spouse and where is was paid to.

  2. Can you please explain the SSDI entries of inaccurate data, especially dates of death before SSA began operation?

    EX: Patricia Chaney
    U.S. Social Security Death Index
    birth: 4 November 1833
    death: November 1933

    EX: Cora Smith
    U.S. Social Security Death Index
    birth: 5 December 1825
    death: December 1924

    The thousands of bad records are blamed on second hand providers, when I believe there is little quality control at SSA. And SSA has no desire for receiving corrections. Providers such as FamilySearch and Ancestry might want to post notices that failed searches in this database might be from inaccurate SSA data.

    Wally Waits wwaits@gmail.com

  3. Lump sum death payments are payments to aid with funeral expenses now only given to a living-with spouse or minor children. I don't remember the year it changed, but at one time it could be paid to funeral homes. Funeral homes often filled out a form and sent it in to SSA to receive payment and to notify SSA about the death of an individual.

    Technically it is not always the last benefit paid as benefits can be paid to the wage-earners survivors. But as the purpose is to help pay for the funeral of the wage-earner, it is the last benefit issued on behalf of the wage-earner rather than his family. I Hope this makes sense.

  4. The lump sum payment is explained at this web site: http://ssa-custhelp.ssa.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/202/~/lump-sum-death-payment . The amount is ridiculously small for today's economy, but I suppose something is better than nothing.

  5. It's interesting that the Rootsweb SSDI lists the V & P codes but Ancestry.com does not.