What to Do When the Government Says You’re Dead

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It happens more often than you think: The federal government tells everyone you've died when you're still very much alive. But the result is the death of your bank accounts, credit cards, and worse.

Peggy Blevins is a 65-year-old Tennessee woman on the verge of retirement from a 22-year career at JCPenney. She’s worked all her life in a customer-service industry, and she’s heard it all before. But even she was surprised by what a bank teller told her recently.

“I went to the bank to withdraw money and never expected what I heard next,” Blevins says.  “The bank teller nervously explained to me that all of my accounts had been closed, including the ones I shared with my 86-year-old mother.”

The reason? She was dead.

“The Social Security Administration had declared me dead,” Blevins recalls. “I was flabbergasted.”  Within a few days, all of her credit card accounts had been frozen – so had her mortgage.

Blevins’ story isn’t uncommon. According to an audit performed by the Office of the Inspector General in April of 2011 [PDF], Social Security’s “Death Master File” – which is used by many private companies from banks to insurance companies – is rife with errors.  From this recent CNN story:

Of the approximately 2.8 million death reports the Social Security Administration receives per year, about 14,000 — or one in every 200 deaths — are incorrectly entered into its Death Master File, which contains the Social Security numbers, names, birth dates, death dates, zip codes and last-known residences of more than 87 million deceased Americans. That averages out to 38 life-altering mistakes a day.

Not only can a mistake in the Death Master File cause your bank and credit accounts to be frozen, it can stop Social Security benefits payments – and even result in the publication of your personal information, which can lead to identity theft once the bad guys figure out you’re still alive.

How does this happen? The Social Security Administration sells your personal identifying information – Social Security number, date of birth, etc. – to the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Services, which in turn makes it available to its customers, which can be anyone.

This practice is designed to thwart criminal activity by notifying financial institutions as well as federal, state, and local governments of your death. And it works fine – at least if the person being reported as dead is. If you’re still alive and kicking, however, anyone willing to pay for a subscription can download all the information they need to steal your identity.

Fortunately for Blevins, her untimely death didn’t result in identity theft. But putting her life back together took weeks.

So if you discover that the Social Security Administration has accidentally killed you off, here’s the convoluted and time-consuming process to undo it – it’s the government, after all…

  1. Drive to the federal government: While you were pronounced dead via computer, you can only revive yourself in person. So contact your local Social Security Administration office as soon as you can. (Here’s how to find yours.) Go there in person and show a photo ID. The office will then launch an investigation.
  2. Drive to the county government: From there, drive down to the keeper of your county’s vital records. In many cases, that’s the Public Health Department. Ask to file an “amended death certificate.” That requires you to fill out an affidavit and file it with the county registrar. That’s what Blevins did, and it was relatively easy. “For $7 and a few hours of my time, I was able to order a copy of my death certificate, complete the amendment affidavit, and file it with the Health Department,” she says.
  3. Get on the phone: Call your creditors and bank to re-establish your existence. “Your best bet here is to contact as many of these companies as you can in person,” Blevins says. “This gives them the opportunity to validate your identity via photo ID and other security measures.” Some establishments may require you to wait until the Social Security Administration updates your record in the Master Death File before they can reinstate your accounts. “This was the toughest step for me,” Blevins says. “I ended up taking a day off from work in order to go to my bank. Not only did I have to present my photo ID, but I had to show them a copy of my amended death certificate as well.”
  4. Get online: Dispute any inaccuracies with the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). Since the credit bureaus are required to validate your existence, you’ll need to wait until the SSA has updated your record before submitting your disputes. “Thanks to the online dispute process, I was able to submit my corrections online,” Blevins says. “However, it took eight weeks for the bureaus to get everything straightened back out.”

In the end, Blevins was able to restore her status as a living, breathing, taxpaying citizen. “It was a harrowing ordeal,” she says, “but I realize that it could’ve been much worse. I didn’t lose my job, and since I wasn’t dependent on Social Security benefits as my main source of income, I could still put food on the table and pay my bills. Many people aren’t quite so lucky.”

For more information regarding the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File, visit this page of the Social Security Administration.

Stacy Johnson

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