Because of their meticulous accuracy and detailed information, government death records are one of the best primary resources you can access for your genealogy research. Depending on the type of record you find, you may be able to learn a great deal about your deceased relative, including her place and date of birth; place, date, and cause of death; information on other relatives, and even occupation.
Strategies for Finding Government Death Records
There are several different types of government death records, and accessing each one requires a unique research process. In many cases, you can find the death records for free, although some are only available for a fee.
Social Security Death Index
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is a database of government death records dating back to 1936. If your ancestor had a social security number and her death was reported properly to the authorities, you'll find the record in the SSDI. Typically, the Social Security Death Index includes the following data:
- First and last name at time of death
- Social security number and issuing state
- Date of birth
- Date of death, often just the month and year
- Last residence
Accessing the SSDI is a little challenging because of identity theft issues. However, you can access the records through Ancestry.com if you subscribe to the service. To access the records at Ancestry.com:
- Subscribe to Ancestry.com, and log in to your account.
- From the "Search" dropdown menu at the top of the page, select "Birth, Marriage, and Death."
- Under "Featured Data Collections" on the right-hand side of the page, click on "Social Security Death Index."
- Enter as much information as you can about your ancestor, including her name and date of birth.
- Click "Search," and review the results.
Deaths of US Citizens in Foreign Countries
Since 1789, the US Department of State has kept records of citizens who died abroad. These records are by no means complete, since they required the death to be reported to the consular office in the first place. However, this is a very good source to consider if you are looking for an ancestor who died overseas. Today, these death records are kept in the National Archives.
To find records at the National Archives:
- Contact the National Archives by filling out this contact form. Include as much information as you can about your ancestor.
- Wait to hear back from the National Archives about whether there is a record on file.
- If there is a record on file, pay a small fee to the National Archives for copying and mailing the record to you. This fee will vary depending on the number of pages in the record.
Federal Census Mortality Schedules
The United States takes a census of the entire population every 10 years, and in certain years, there was a separate form for people who had died in the previous 12 months. These records are available for the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 census for all states. The mortality schedule can tell you the following about your ancestor:
- Name of the deceased
- Age, sex, race, marital status, and occupation of the deceased
- Deceased individual's place of birth
- Month, year, and cause of death
Some census mortality schedules are available for free online. To see if the one you need is free:
- Go to MortalitySchedules.com.
- Click on the name of the state where your ancestor died.
- Click on the county name and appropriate census year.
- Scan the results for your ancestor's name.
If your ancestor isn't on the free mortality schedules, and you want to perform a complete search, you can search the database at Ancestry.com. You'll need to subscribe to Ancestry.com to access the information you find.
State Death Certificates
In most cases, death certificates were kept by the state or county where the deceased person last lived. The earliest dates of the certificates vary depending on the state; however, there are many that date back to the mid- to late-19th century. These certificates can offer valuable information for genealogists, including the following:
- Full name of individual
- Name of parents and other family members
- Date and place of birth
- Date, place, and cause of death
Because each state's records are different, there's no set process for accessing these records. Fortunately, DeathIndexes.com provides a handy directory. Here's how to use it:
- Go to the main index page.
- Click on the name of the state where your ancestor died.
- Receive a list of all state and country death indexes organized by county. Click on the appropriate county.
- You'll automatically be transferred to the death certificate look-up for that county.
In some cases, your ancestor's death may be recorded in probate records. These records are only applicable if the court made a decision regarding your ancestor's estate or if your ancestor had a will. According to FamilySearch.org, probate records apply to about one quarter of heads of households in the United States before the year 1900. In these cases, you'll find a wealth of information in a probate record:
- Date and place of individual's death
- Names of family members, including spouse, parents, children, in-laws, and others
- Data about land ownership and property
It's very difficult to access most probate records online, but you can still find out if these records exist and get copies if they do.
- Identify the state and county where your ancestor died, as well as any information you can about the date of death.
- Contact the county courthouse for that jurisdiction to find out if the records are kept there.
- If the records are kept there, ask about the process of looking those up.
- If they are not kept there, ask where they are located. In many cases, this will be the state or local archives. Request contact information for these repositories.
Try Multiple Sources
No matter which type of government death record you need to find, understanding the process will make finding your information easier. If you don't find what you need from one source, move on to another. Often, your ancestor may have one type of death record, but she may not be mentioned in others.