Public Access to Federal Records

The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 7: If you call Social Security and ask where to write for a birth certificate, tell them it is for yourself…they won’t help you if you say you want one for your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather who died in 1642.

Genealogists know the value of the National Archives as the repository for the historical records of America. Generally, records held by the National Archives were originated by and later transferred from federal agencies after a certain age. In most case, once the records are at the National Archives, they may become accessible to the public. All federal departments currently schedule all records for destruction or retention. Each department decides on the historical significance of the various records they create, and by law, follow federal guidelines on their destruction after a set number of years; or their retention and eventual transfer to the National Archives. But before any federal records are transferred, the various federal agencies may still be a source for genealogical inquires in the records they hold. There are some specific rules relating to accessing public records at the federal level before they are transferred to the National Archives.

Changes to the Federal Privacy Laws
In the early 1970s, a case being heard by a Federal Appellate Court ruled against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who sought to restrict public access to its files. A precedent was set in this case, one which is still followed today. Essentially, the court ruled that deceased persons have no privacy rights. The ruling forced the FBI to make public any of its files relating to investigations of any individual who had since died. Immediately after this ruling, the public learned of J. Edgar Hoover’s collection of dossiers for over one million Americans and many of the details from these files were published in newspapers and magazines.

Also resulting from the FBI ruling, information from all agencies of the Federal Government began to be opened to the public, that is, information in files concerning deceased persons. In 1974, the federal Privacy Act became law, and the provisions relating to the opening of federal records of deceased persons was formalized. In addition, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) became a method of accessing information from federal government files. The FOIA set up specific access provisions (and exemptions) for certain types of records generated by the various federal agencies.

Records generated by any federal agency became subject to these laws, and often for the first time, the general public could access records previously unobtainable. These provisions for public access to federal records has become a boon to genealogists.

FBI Files
The FBI now has a special website for invoking the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information on yourself, or any deceased person. Detailed instructions are given at the FBI website on what you need to submit a request for information. See

Accessing Social Security Files (2012 Update)
One agency which quickly set up a system for public access to their files was the Social Security Administration (SSA). The Social Security Death Index (SSDI), for example, was made public as a result of the FBI court ruling. The SSDI is now a primary source used by genealogists to find the names of deceased ancestors, and several versions of the SSDI can be found on the Internet. The SSDI gives the deceased person’s social security number, which is often a required piece of data for obtaining more information about the person from other agencies.

However, a recent change in the SSDI now limits the access to death records due to the SSA’s concern about identify theft. Certain state death records are no longer available, and the SSDI is no longer nearly as complete as before. It is estimated that over one million records per year are no longer being made public in the SSDI bi-monthly updates. In addition to genealogical researchers, many medical researchers are being put into serious restraints by the recent change. For a good article describing the situation, see the October 8, 2012 New York Times article at

Dollarhide’s Rule No. 5: A Social Security form SS-5 is better than a birth certificate because few people had anything to do with the information on their own birth certificate.

In addition to the SSDI, a copy of a deceased person’s Form SS-5 – Application for a Social Security Account can be obtained for any deceased person listed in the SSDI, or more recently, any deceased person for whom you have a social security number. An SS-5 form is primary genealogical evidence, a form filled out and signed by the applicant, naming parents, date and place of birth, employer, and more. And, another genealogical research tool available is any deceased person’s Work History (from the claims folder for past benefit recipients), as recorded by the SSA. The Work History includes the names and dates of all places of employment for a person, and can be another valuable resource for reconstructing genealogical dates and places during a person’s life. To get copies of the SS-5 forms or the Work Histories, one must file a Freedom of Information Act request.

There are some significant recent changes to the rules for obtaining a copy of an SS-5. Under SSA’s new (2012) policies, they will not release the parents’ names on an SS-5 application unless the parents’ are proven deceased, have a birth date more than 120 years ago, or the social security number holder on the SS-5 is at least 100 years of age. This is a another of the SSA’s supposed protections against identify theft and is making public access much more restrictive. (After all, the main reason a genealogist would want the SS-5 form, would be to learn or confirm the names of the parents, including the maiden name of the person’s mother. If SSA now says you must proof the parents are deceased before you can have all of the information, a genealogist looking for those names will probably have to find another source).

SSA recently added the means of requesting copies of the SS-5 online. To use the new Social Security Electronic Freedom of Information (eFOIA), see This webpage gives the rules, fees, and links to the online forms for making a request using provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Use the Form SSA-711 to request a copy of a person’s Form SS-5. As to obtaining a copy of a deceased person’s SSA Work History, there is now a general eForm online where a General Request for Social Security Records allows a free-style request (up to 2000 words). There is no indication of the specific wording for requesting a Work History, so use at least the following: Name of deceased person, birth and death information, including dates and places, and the person’s social security number, if known. Use this description in your request: “Request copies or extracts of all Work Histories, including names and places of all employers, taken from the SSA claims folder for past benefit recipients.” SSA will respond to your general request by eMail and if a fee is required, they will inform you of that, plus any other information they may require.

Military Records
All branches of the military also became subject to the FBI court ruling concerning records of deceased persons. Military personnel files, which contain substantial genealogical information, can be accessed for any deceased veteran who served in the military since the early 1900s. These records are kept at the National Personnel Records Center, Military Records Facility, St. Louis, Missouri. For information on how to obtain these records, go to their Internet website at

Federal Employee Records
The personnel files for any person who served as a federal employee since the early 1900s are kept at the National Personnel Records Center, Civilian Records Facility, St. Louis, Missouri. For information on how to obtain these records, go to their Internet website at

Federal Census Records
Even for censuses closed to public access (1950 and later), it is still possible to obtain information about yourself or a deceased ancestor from a census record. Anyone can request copies of their own census records (or those of other family members) by using the Census Bureau’s Age Search Service. Many people who do not have birth certificates request copies of their information collected in the censuses. These copies can be used as proof of birth in the absence of a birth certificate. These requests are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the census law authorizes the release of census information under very specific conditions. Thus, an individual may obtain or authorize release of his or her own census information. The law directs the Census Bureau to collect a fee to cover the cost of providing this information and, unlike the FOIA, does not authorize the Census Bureau to waive payment. For more information on the Age Search Service, consult the Census Bureau Publication Age Search Information (POL/00-ASI, July 2000) [PDF 4.8Mb]. This Age Search publication describes the procedure for obtaining a census transcript using a completed BC-600 application [PDF – 142k]. A search in any census for living persons may include those as early as 1900 forward, as well as those not open to the public yet (1950 forward). The current fee is $65.00 for searching one census year. Added fees are for each full schedule requested or expedited service. One line only from the original census schedule will be extracted, showing the name, age, and birthplace of one person – and the extracted data is then presented as a certified document that can serve as a bona fide birth record.

U.S. Department of State
U.S. Citizens Born Abroad. Upon request, the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the U.S. Department of State will furnish a certification of birth to U.S. citizens born abroad provided the birth was reported to the American consular office in the country where the birth occurred. The U.S. Department of State issues certified copies of the Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) (Form FS-240). To request copies of the FS-240, visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs webpage at All Consular Vital Records currently cost $50.00 per document.

Other Federal Agencies – Using the Freedom of Information Act
Since the laws regarding public access of federal records applies to all federal agencies, a family historian has several more possible sources of genealogical information. If you think there is a chance of records at a particular federal agency which deals with a deceased ancestor, it should be pursued. The way to approach the agency is through the Freedom of Information Act. Fortunately, there is a group of experts on how to use that approach: your U.S. Congressman, or U.S. Senator. The staff of the local offices of these elected officials are resources to you. They will show you the rules, and even prepare the paperwork for invoking the Freedom of Information Act in accessing federal records. Elected officials have discovered that any kind of personal service they can provide to a constituent pays off in word-of-mouth endorsements for their next election. So, before making a request for help in the Freedom of Information Act, make sure you are a current registered voter in the elected official’s district. (They’ll check the voter list).

7 thoughts on “Public Access to Federal Records

  1. Hi,
    I never know about some of these items. I plan to contact Social Security about my Dad’s work history – he was a bit of a wanderer – and my Mom’s Federal employment history.
    Thanks so much…

  2. Lynn, after you contact SSA re Work Histories and get a response, please add another comment to this article. Go to “Dollarhide Columns” to find the article in the archives. -bill$hide

  3. Very good artical. My family are Ghosts!! So far no records have been found,concerning my Parents Grandparents or Cousins exist!!Never knew my parents,never soke to them or was given any infomation about them. Please feel free to hunt them out should you have some free time I’ll answer an questions you may have to the bset of my Knowledge . Thank you &Good Luck!!

  4. This article is a keeper. Thanks again for your invaluable information! If my GG grandfather was born in Ireland and then came to Boston during the 1870’s and became a US Citizen then went home to die in Ireland would I be able to acess his info from the above sites? He died in 1917 (Ireland)…thanks again!

  5. Lisa, if your gg grandfahter’s death was reported to a U.S. Consul, there should still be a record today. But, 1917 is a bit early for such records, and you might be specific in your request for information as to the town/county of death in Ireland, which in 1917 was still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, so the U.S. consul for the area may not have actually been in Ireland.

  6. I am looking for my long lost cousin. He served in the world war II and I have found documents on him until 1954. He then disappears from records. It is said that he is in the Massachusetts VA Hospital because he becomes ill and dies. The VA and Army have no record of him as a patient or that he is buried in a veterans cemetery. It seems as if the state of Massachusetts simply has eaten him up. I have checked the death index for Mass and thus far I have not found him. I know, from family history, that he died before in 1967. Any ideas? Also would the SSA have a work history if he did not claim benefits? Maybe something could be with the dept of labor or IRS. Thanks

  7. David: The only requirement for getting an SSA report on a person’s work history is that the person be deceased. The article has a link you can use to access the request form. I just checked it again, and it is still good. -bill$hide

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