Inheriting Headaches

As I once wrote, gifts and bequests can carry a double edge for the institutions which receive them.

Here is an interesting problem for the Brooklyn Museum, as reported today by the New York Times. A major bequest made in 1932 of nearly 1,000 fine paintings and artifacts seemed at first like a wonderful windfall, but is now, to some extent, a white elephant.

The huge collection was left to the museum by Col. Michael Friedsam, head of the legendary Altman department store and an associated philantrophic foundation.

First snag: About a fourth of the items were either forgeries or misattributions or basically not up to snuff in some way. So the museum wouldn’t mind selling the 229 pieces it no longer wants (but has to spend lots of money storing).

Second snag: Friedsam’s will specified that nothing could be disposed of without permission from the executors. And the last executor died in 1962.

Sounds like a job for a forensic genealogist. From the Times’ story by Patricia Cohen:

Noting that the will specified that the art should go to the colonel’s brother-in-law and two friends if the collection were not kept together, Judge Nora Anderson told the museum in December 2011 that it must search for these three men’s descendants before she would rule.

Nothing’s ever simple, right?


Links: SSDI Access Under Threat Edition

I really hate writing headlines like that. But it looks as if plans to severely limit (if not altogether end) public access to the Social Security Death Index are back under discussion. This is all about HR 3475, sponsored by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX3). I was looking at it a while ago and it seemed like bad news to genealogical researchers.

And now, as Johnson’s press release informs us, there will now be hearings on the issue. Oral testimony this Thursday (Feb. 2) will be only from invited witnesses. That group is not terribly likely to include genealogists, but we can still make our opinions known through letters, phone calls and emails. Here are good places to go for information:

• Judy Russell at The Legal Genealogist has the essential post about how to act — what the essential arguments are, where to find the background information. Read it; it is important. Of special note is her list of the Ways and Means committee’s Social Security subcommittee members. Note also the members who take email only from constituents; you’ll want to snail-mail them instead.

• There are further resources here, courtesy of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy.

• And Kimberly Powell also summarizes the context clearly and concisely. (Kimberly mentions that the Veterans Affairs’ BIRLS Death File on Ancestry has been affected by the current climate, as well.)

Kind of funny, when you think about it. It’s more possible than ever for all sorts of entities to mine the details of our private lives for commercial gain. Yet apparently the burning data security issue of the day involves … clamping down on genealogists? A few weeks back I was musing that it would be edifying to know just how big a proportion of all identity fraud each year would be eliminated by shutting down the SSDI, and whether a broad-scale change in access would really keep the crooks at bay. Hard numbers on the scope of SSDI problems were elusive in media reports about the issue last fall. And lost in the shuffle are examples of how the SSDI actually is a powerful tool to prevent fraud — the reason it was created in the first place.

Time to educate, inform, and raise our voices.

What I Am Reading Right Now

I am going through a fantastically interesting and useful set of posts over at The Legal Genealogist called How old did folks have to be (that link is Part One; here are Part Two and Part Three).

It reminds us that in the absence of a birth record, the legal framework in which our ancestors operated can provide important clues about their age. Knowing how old a person had to be to marry (among many things) can help us narrow the range of a search considerably.

Judy G. Russell is providing so much good information here it’s unfair to single out any one paragraph, but since this one involves my home state and really is a very good example, here goes:

In East Jersey, the 1683 Fundamental Constitutions required the ruling Proprietors to be 21 years old in order to vote (section XIII), jurors were required to be age 25 (section XIX), and whenever any names were to be drawn by lot for elections or jury service, the drawing was done by a boy under the age of 10 (sections III and XIX).

Where you find a name, and at what point in a place’s legal history, can point you to some very specific age frames, as Russell’s posts amply illustrate. Great stuff.

And another thing …

… related to SSDI:

See, here’s another industry that uses the SSDI: Insurers. This article explains how insurers in New York State use the SSDI in order to make  death benefit payouts to survivors more promptly, and how they use it to make sure they don’t pay annuities to dead people. (Thanks to Actuarial Opinions for forwarding the link.)

You’d think the insurance industry would be upset about limiting access, too. Although perhaps they figure it’s no problem to them, as they can buy the data they need for themselves.

Updated, with another Deep Thought: Yeah, this is probably why you aren’t hearing from the banking and legal professions on this one, either. They’ll have the information anyway, as they can afford to purchase their own databases. Whereas the little guy who’s trying to find out where Grandpa disappeared to — oops, sorry. Thanks, Senators!

SSDI: Time To Get Mad

So last month I (among many, I know) was wondering about where all this rumbling about the SSDI was going to lead. An eye-catching story from the Scripps Howard News Service had focused on cases in which the Social Security numbers of dead children were used to claim them fraudulently on tax returns, and legislators were mentioned as being very concerned. Given the trigger words like “children,” “fraud” and “safety,” it seemed reasonable to await another shoe dropping.

Well. This week pulled free access to the SSDI. It’s still available to subscribers, with Social Security numbers removed from individuals who have died within the past decade. Kimberly Powell summarizes what’s going on here, reporting that the move appears to be prompted by a petition from Sens.  Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), Bill Nelson (D-Florida) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois).

The other essential post is Megan Smolenyak’s reasoned and eloquent defense of the SSDI as a readily available research tool. It contains much that I searched for in vain in the Scripps stories — including an attempt to assess exactly how many dead children’s identities are stolen by strangers each year. The number appears to be far lower than the instances in which children’s identities are stolen and misused by their own parents. This finding,  if it continues to hold up, reinforces my impression that a rather emotionally manipulative campaign is achieving a panic-stricken result.

How to achieve some organized pushback? Who else besides Megan is pointing out the ways in which the SSDI is used to prevent fraud? What institution is responding on behalf of the researchers for whom the SSDI is an essential tool in discovering lost identities, reclaiming the John and Jane Does, repatriating the remains of long-dead military personnel?

One last thought: is, for better or worse, synonymous with “genealogy” for Jane and John Q. Public. But I’m afraid this situation may be highlighting a bit of a problem: Big-business genealogy may not equate with genealogy advocacy.  It’s very tough when senators come calling and a national news service is writing frightening stories. But Ancestry, with that iconic brand name and a base of the enthusiasts who made its fortune, could certainly be in a position to educate panic-stricken lawmakers and push back on news stories that paint incomplete pictures. If it wanted to.

Meanwhile, you and I can educate ourselves by reading the summaries from Kimberly and Megan. Then we can write to the senators listed above. Hey, somebody has to.

Information, Please (Or Not)

Lots of talk lately about the 100-year restriction on obtaining SS-5 forms for genealogical purposes. (That’s 100 years from the birth of the applicant, so in other words, you can’t obtain unaltered forms for anyone born after 1912.) This certainly seems like overkill, as Megan Smolenyak points out in her post.

It also got me to thinking about a recent flow of coverage about a proposal to restrict access to the Social Security Death Index. Actually,  according to this story, the measure (H.R. 3475) would effectively end public access to the SSDI. The rationale is that we need to stop the theft of dead people’s Social Security Numbers to perpetrate identity fraud.

The link above is a Scripps-Howard news service piece. It was picked up and localized a lot nationwide, and focused upon a particularly low scam in which dead children’s Social Security numbers are harvested by crooks claiming fictional dependents on tax returns. Interviews with grieving parents whose children’s numbers were picked off by scam artists can only inspire helpless anger.

But. Outrage and anger might not necessarily be the best mind-frame for making a sweeping rule change that affects a whole lot of people, and not just the people quoted in the stories.

Now, keep in mind that this is a bill that just got introduced, and there’s no telling if it will go anywhere. Nevertheless, asking some additional questions isn’t a bad idea. Even if answering these questions might not reveal compelling reasons against this proposal, at least we could say we thought things through before plunging ahead.

1.  What proportion of all identity fraud each year would we eliminate by shutting down the SSDI? Huge? Medium? Small? Is it worth closing off this research tool or not? Discuss.

2. Who bears the financial cost of the tax-return fraud? It would appear to be the government (dispensing tax credits to thieves who claim false  dependents). In which case, why can’t we talk about better internal procedures rather than about shutting the index down?

3. Related question: If a person can check the SSDI for a dead person’s number, can’t other people check it too and figure out that an alleged somebody is actually dead and therefore cannot be opening bank accounts/taking driver’s tests/being claimed as a dependent? Why characterize the SSDI only as a sieve and not as a potential shield?

4. Thievery of identity bears a highly painful cost. But is this pain worth more than the pain of, say, an adoptee who is trying to trace blood kin  and is now denied a useful tool? Can we balance them out? Why or why not?

H.R. 3475 is currently referred to the Ways and Means committee, for those who like to keep score on these things. Speaking of keeping score, a great resource on records access issues affecting genealogy is the website of the Records Preservation and Access Committee, a joint effort of the FGS, the NGS and the IAJGS.