Here's an example from 2009. I wanted to confirm my maternal grandfather's home town and parents' names. At the time, these applications weren't indexed or available anywhere else. Today, you can often see some application info on Ancestry or other sites.
Above is what I received for my money eight years ago. Yes, Theodore (Teddy) Schwartz (1887-1965) was born in Ungvar, Hungary, on May 21, 1887. His parents were Herman and Hanna. And the address is where my grandparents lived for a few years, before selling their dairy store and moving around the corner from Tremont Ave. in the Bronx, NY.
In 2009, there was no electronic way to request these forms, and the wait seemed interminable (about 2 months). Today, just click to the website and have your plastic payment ready, which cuts a little time off the wait.
A better example is what I learned when I started the Gen Go-Over. I finally bought a copy of the application of my paternal grandfather, Isaac Burk (1882-1943). It revealed his mother's maiden name and his hometown. It also told me he was working for his brother-in-law, which I didn't know. Looking at the application, I suspect Isaac didn't write it himself but did sign it (I've seen his laborious signature on other documents).
The bottom line is: Try all the free possibilities first, including free access to the big genealogy websites through your public library or family history library. But if you absolutely, positively cannot get the details or the confirmation in any other way, and this information is critical to your research, do consider paying for this document, which contains info personally provided by your ancestor (even if he or she didn't actually write the information but only signed the paperwork).
- This is a good place to see an ancestor's parents' names. I needed to confirm Grandpa Isaac's parents' names, which were indistinct on his marriage license.
- This is a good (sometimes the only) way to see a maiden name. That's what happened with Grandpa Isaac, among other ancestors. I fought hard to see the full SSA details of a cousin's ancestor, showing the maiden name of his mother, because without it, I couldn't get the final piece of the puzzle in place and prove the family relationship. Patience and perseverance will pay off if you have to fight to see redacted details.* It took me two appeals, but I won. And solved the puzzle!
- This is sometimes a good way to learn or confirm hometown or homeland info. Grandpa Teddy and Grandpa Isaac show this in action. I appreciated using their SSA info to confirm other documentation.
- This will give you a clue to home and work addresses that you can research in more depth. Suppose you can't find someone in the Census but you do know that person had a Social Security number, which you located via the Social Security Death Index or through another method. At least you'll have an address as of the date of this application. My 2d cousin found Teddy's address in a note her mother had squirreled away decades ago. Now that I knew when Teddy lived at that address, I could be more certain of when the young lady was in touch with Teddy. It helped us understand the close relationship between Teddy and his niece.
- Other details. Maybe, like me, you'll learn something surprising about the person's occupation or employer. I'm always hoping to flesh out my ancestors' lives so they're more than a name and a few dates.
Please feel free to comment about your "free genealogy" experiences or what you believe is worth paying for! Thank you.
*The appeal is one way to see what has been blocked from view on a person's SSA. I don't think there's an appeal process for requesting a record that the authorities say doesn't exist or they can't find. But if you receive an application with names blocked from view, it's worth rereading the privacy rules and trying to appeal by sending documents to prove that the dates are beyond when any of these people would be living.