Did You Know This About the Death Master File?

Did You Know This About the Death Master File?

The Death Master File (DMF) is a central record of deaths across the US, compiled by the Social Security administration and distributed via the National Technical Information Service (NTIS). For genealogists, medical researchers, and professionals in various fields the National Technical Information Service Death Master File is the primary way to verify deaths. Many agencies rely on the DMF database, including compliance agencies, genealogical organizations, medical research bodies, and more.


In 2011, the Federal Government applied a drastic change to the way that it processes information on reported deaths to compile the public SSN Death Master File. The Social Security administration had taken much of its information about deaths from State records and had used those records to compile the comprehensive list of deaths. However, in November 2011 the SSA reviewed its obligations towards certain State records, and announced that it was a statutory requirement to keep that information confidential to the State departments. Although the SSA can still access State death records, it can only use that information to corroborate and correct its existing death records rather than as the primary source of data.

The change was unexpected and did not receive much publicity. As a result, many people who regularly consult the Public Death Master File or rely on information from agencies who use the DMF are still unaware of the implications of this change. As well as changing the way that the SSA continues to gather data about deaths, the statutory requirements also led the SSA to remove about 4.2 million existing death records because they were based on information from proscribed State records. The DMF numbers around 83 million records of deaths since 1936. Although the SSA has always warned that the DMF is not a complete file of every death in the country, the removal of 4.2 million left a noticeable gap.

While some professionals already know about the effects of removing 4.2 million deaths, many members of the public are not aware of the limited access to the death master file. Agencies such as Streamline Verify can only share information that they get from the Death Master file. When clients turn to us to check on death status, they are confused when they discover that the death they are inquiring about isn’t showing up on our records. The reason for this is the change in the DMF database; we cannot share death records that the DMF has removed.


The SSA is still continuing to add to the DMF and it is still being provided to agencies and professionals under the Freedom of Information Act, but now it is based on deaths reported by funeral homes, hospitals, family members, postal authorities, or federal agencies and financial institutions. In 2010, the SSA shared around 2.8 million deaths on the DMF database, including updates and changes, but after this change to accessing State information it will probably only share around 1.8 million. This means that from 2011 onwards, more deaths that are included in State records won’t show up on the Death Master File free search.


All this being said, the Death Master File search is still the most accurate and reliable way to screen for death records – even with the reduced number or reports. Streamline Verify continues to provide all the legally available death records that are presented through the National Technical Information Service Death Master File with the highest possible degree of accuracy.