In the blockbuster movie, Jumanji: Return to the Jungle, the players watch as tally marks on their arms slowly disappear. Eventually, one of the characters, Dr. Smolder Bravestone, realizes that the tallies represent their remaining lives: They have just three. The limit poses a challenge for the players as they maneuver through the jungle.
I may not have been threatened by charging rhinos or ravenous mosquitoes, but I did have to navigate through the Social Security Administration’s website earlier this week—also daunting— and along the way I found out that taxpayers have limits, too. I always assumed that your Social Security card was infinitely replaceable. It is not: You are limited to three replacement cards in a year and ten during your lifetime.
Social Security cards were first issued by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in November 1935. In the following year, John D. Sweeney, Jr. of New Rochelle, New York, received SSN 055-09-0001, the first Social Security record established in the country (interestingly, Sweeney never received any Social Security benefits).
Social Security numbers (SSN), those nine-digit numbers printed on your card, were created to help administer President Roosevelt’s New Deal Social Security program, or what we know now as the Social Security Act. The original purpose of the Act was to provide benefits to retirees, the unemployed, certain children and the disabled. As now, payments from the program were financed by a payroll tax on wages, half of which was withheld from an employee’s check, with and the other half in the form of a contribution from the employer. That framework has pretty much held steady throughout time except for the Medicare piece, which was tacked on in the 1960s.
(You can read more about how Social Security works here.)
Since Social Security numbers were meant to track wages and contributions, it used to be the case that minors under the age of 14 weren’t required to have Social Security numbers unless they needed one to file a tax return. As part of President Reagan’s Tax Reform Act of 1986, the law was changed to require parents to list Social Security numbers for each dependent over the age of five. The age threshold was reduced again in the 1990s, and today a Social Security number is required for federal income tax purposes for all children claimed as dependents (unless an exemption exists, such as the early death of a child).
Since the original purpose of Social Security numbers was tax-driven, it used to be that Social Security cards expressly stated that they were not to be used for identification purposes. This stance was meant to allay fears in a postwar society that the number would be treated as a “national identification number.” In the 1970s, that message was removed from the cards. Today, Social Security numbers are used for all kinds of non-tax reasons, making them a hot button for identity theft.
Typically, you need the number, not the card, for tax reasons. The cards are usually only required for non-tax reasons—and that’s what lead me to the SSA website last week. My oldest child needed her Social Security card, and we no longer have the original. It was stolen years ago, and I did not replace it since we knew her number and that’s worked well for years. Even the SSA admits that “you may not need to get a replacement card.”
In this case, however, I needed the card, and so off to the SSA website I went. I was aware that there was no charge for a replacement card, but I was taken aback by the limits. In this case, it was my fault, not my child’s, that her card was missing. I wondered how this might affect her limit. And since we don’t have disappearing tally marks on our arms, I also wondered how taxpayers would know their remaining limits, especially, as in this case, the replacement card (or cards) was for a minor.
I reached out to the SSA for more information. Darren Lutz, of the National Press Office for SSA, confirmed that you are limited to three replacement cards in a year and ten during your lifetime. Legal name changes and other exceptions do not count toward these limits.
(You can find out more about name changes here.)
According to Lutz, all requests for replacement cards are tracked in an electronic file, known as the Numident record. Once you reach your limit, you must provide evidence of an acceptable exception reason to receive a replacement card. Acceptable exception reasons include:
- Name change
- Legend change (change in immigration status or citizenship)
- Nonreceipt of an SSN card
- SSA mistake
- Hardship of number holder
If one of those exceptions apply to you, you will have to provide documentation to support your case.
But what about forgetful parents? According to Lutz, that’s not an acceptable exception. If your card is replaced through no actions of your own, like your parent requested replacement cards when you were a minor, the replacement card would still count towards your yearly and lifetime limits.
Once you reach your limit, any application for a replacement card would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
If this sounds like it hasn’t always been the rule, you’re right. The limits on replacement cards were the result of Public Law 108-458, Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which amended the National Security Act of 1947. “Restricting the number of replacement SSN cards,” says Lutz, “strengthens the integrity of the SSN.”