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Ordering a Social Security S-5 and hoping for spousal benefits

Most people hit a wall in their genealogy research way, way back. Like in another country or in sparsely-documented eras of colonial America. Not me, I hit a wall with my own grandmother.

My grandmother died in 2018 and as anyone who has ever had a grandmother from the Silent Generation, you know they are not keen to talk about themselves, their lives, and certainly not with their grandchildren. This was my situation where my grandmother, who never worked and paid taxes into Social Security, needed benefits in her old age. I encouraged her to apply for Social Security and Medicare benefits thinking she could qualify for spousal retirement benefits from my grandfather. They had been married for at least ten years, everyone was a citizen, and there was no issue documenting her citizenship status.

The problem, however, was documenting the marriage and divorce. This is where things got very quiet.

In order to qualify for Social Security spousal retirement benefits, you have to prove you were married for ten years with a marriage and (if applicable) a divorce certificate. My grandmother was married, or so I thought. My great mystery is I can’t find a copy of a marriage or a divorce certificate anywhere. To add to this wrinkle, my grandfather remarried and checked the box on that second marriage certificate as “first marriage”.

No one in my family knows anything about that marriage and divorce. My current working theory is:

  1. My grandmother was never legally married, or, they had a common-law or religious marriage but not a marriage at the Clerk’s office.
  2. This tracks with the timing of what I do know: she married in her twenties, they divorced when my mom was in high school.
  3. Census records show my grandfather moved from Pekin to Salem, Indiana sometime around 1950. There’s a window of about 4 years where my grandmother would have been under 18 and not eligible for a legal marriage in Indiana.
  4. Marriage in Indiana was pretty loose even in the 1950s. We were once described as “the Las Vegas of the Midwest”. Even Ronald Reagan got married here because unlike neighboring states, we didn’t really care or enforce much when it came to young women.

Assuming my grandmother did not legally marry, there was never a divorce certificate. But it doesn’t explain how she supposedly was able to get spousal retirement benefits like she said she was. And since she never worked long enough in her own life to qualify for benefits unto herself, I have no idea how this went down with the Social Security Administration. The family lore was she was so mad over it all she burned the marriage record. But that doesn’t explain why every county I call and state archive I check has no record, either.

I’ve applied for a FOIA request on the Social Security S-5: the application for Social Security. Next of kin for the deceased can apply to the SSA for a copy of their initial records. I doubt this shows me anything more than things I already know, which is just her childhood handwriting (how weird is it we make people sign this as a child and hold on to it forever). But, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll get lucky. For $21, it doesn’t hurt to try.

If you’d like to make a FOIA request for Social Security (or any other government records), there’s a website for that.

For SSA records, you’ll need:

  1. A copy of the deceased’s death certificate. This is especially true for recent deaths (2014 and onward), or anyone who has not been dead for at least 120 years.
  2. $21, payable online after you submit the application.
  3. A copy of your ID, just to show you are who you are. It doesn’t explicitly request this, but I submitted it just to be safe.

You have the option for a computer extract or the original record. I can’t imagine why anyone would want the computer extract for $21 when you can get the full record and original copy for $21. At the very least, you’ll get complete information and you get to see your ancestor’s handwriting from when they were 8 or whatever.


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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