Social Security Numbers Law and Legal Definition

The Social Security Act is a comprehensive contributory insurance plan to protect individuals from unforeseen catastrophes. The general purpose of the old-age, survivors', and disability insurance provisions of the statute is to protect workers and their dependents from the risk of loss of income due to the insured's old age, death, or disability. The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers the Supplemental Security Income for the aged, blind, and disabled programs as well as the Old age, Survivors', and Disability insurance program. The Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) oversees the provider reimbursement functions of the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Both agencies are units of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Every person who is employed or who earns income from self-employment must have a Social Security number (SSN). Other persons are also entitled to have a Social Security number assigned to them. A Social Security number identifies each person's record so that wages or self-employment income reported can be properly credited to the individual's record. The number is also used when determining entitlement to benefits. A Social Security number and card are issued by submitting an application Form SS- 5 to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Application Form SS-5 is the form used to apply for original cards, replacement cards, and any duplicate cards involving a change of name or correction of other information on an original application. The applicant must submit documentary evidence of age, identity, and United States citizenship or legal alien status before an application can be processed. The SSA has established specific rules for acceptable evidence of the required information.

If a person has a Social Security number and has wages or net earnings from self-employment, he or she may also request and receive an earnings statement that will include an estimate of the monthly old-age, disability, dependents', and survivors' insurance benefits potentially payable on the individuals' earnings record, together with a description of the benefits payable under the medicare program.

In response to growing concerns over the accumulation of massive amounts of personal information, Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974. Among other things, this Act makes it unlawful for a governmental agency to deny a right, benefit, or privilege merely because the individual refuses to disclose his SSN.

Section 7 of the Privacy Act further provides that any agency requesting an individual to disclose his SSN must "inform that individual whether that disclosure is mandatory or voluntary, by what statutory authority such number is solicited, and what uses will be made of it."

For example, Section 6039E of the Internal Revenue Code (26 U.S.C. 6039E) requires you to provide your SSN to obtain a passport. The passport application also includes a statement that "In addition to reporting your Social Security Number to Treasury and using it in connection with debt collection, the Department checks Social Security Numbers against lists of persons ineligible or potentially ineligible to receive a U.S. passport."

State laws concerning the use and disclosure of SSNs vary by state. Some states shield the use of SSNs in public documents, such as bankruptcy filings and other types of court records that often contain Social Security numbers of the parties to a proceeding. For instance, marriage licenses have been a source for SSNs and a number of states, including Arizona, California, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Ohio, and Michigan, have enacted legislative protections to prevent their disclosure. States have also enacted law to shield SSNs collected from birth and death records. Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, and other states limit the appearance of the parents' SSN on birth records. Similarly, several states restrict disclosure of the SSN in records associated with death. Other state laws govern the use of SSNs of students by universities, SSNs on driving licenses, medical information, account balances, credit limit information, and more. Local laws should be consulted for specific requirements in your area.