What to Do When the Government Says You’re Dead

Photo (cc) by Tom Lohdan

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.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
15 of the Most Outrageously Overpriced Products
15 of the Most Outrageously Overpriced Products

Retailers mark up products by hundreds of times their cost — but you don’t have to pay the premium.

10 Food Staples That Are Easy and Cheap to Make Yourself
10 Food Staples That Are Easy and Cheap to Make Yourself

Making any of these key foods yourself will improve meals — and your budget.

8 Ways to Slash the Cost of Homeowners Insurance
8 Ways to Slash the Cost of Homeowners Insurance

Reviewing this critical insurance policy takes a little effort, but it pays off big.

How to Save Up to 70% on 7 Everyday Purchases
How to Save Up to 70% on 7 Everyday Purchases

Stop getting sucked into paying a premium when good alternatives are available at huge savings.

What’s the Difference Between FICO and VantageScore Credit Scores?
What’s the Difference Between FICO and VantageScore Credit Scores?

There are lots of credit scores out there, but if you’re keeping an eye on your credit, here’s the one to watch.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

The Next 5 Groups Who Will Get the COVID-19 Vaccine
The Next 5 Groups Who Will Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

The CDC has unveiled a schedule that likely will determine who gets the next doses.

Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?
Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?

Can an adult daughter tap into her late mother’s benefit?

11 Generic Products You Should Buy at Costco
11 Generic Products You Should Buy at Costco

Not all generics are worthwhile, but these are among the best from Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand.

8 Tips for Retiring Comfortably on Social Security Alone
8 Tips for Retiring Comfortably on Social Security Alone

It’s never too early to start learning how to live well while living on less.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia
This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia

Nearly half of U.S. residents may face this threat.

Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds
Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds

Resolve to be clutter-free in 2021 with these secondhand purchases.

This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers
This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers

For the second straight year, a growing number of Americans believe they’ve fallen prey to this scam.

11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It
11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It

Seriously? Fibbing about the weather is a crime? This and other little-known legal traps await the unwary.

These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy
These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy

These vehicles boast reliability, safety and long-lasting value.

6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have
6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have

Few retirees have all of these documents that are crucial to their golden years — especially during a pandemic.

13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free
13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free

There are many ways to get cheap or free services and goods after reaching a certain age.

Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore
Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore

Starting this month, your ISP no longer can bill you for this fee.

15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021
15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021

Follow these tips to save, so you’ll have money for things that really matter.

9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry
9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry

Keep more of future paychecks by eliminating these budget-busting unnecessary expenses.

The 4 Best Things to Buy in January — and 4 to Avoid
The 4 Best Things to Buy in January — and 4 to Avoid

As a new year dawns, deals abound for some types of products. In other cases, it pays to wait.

11 Huge Retirement Costs That Are Often Overlooked
11 Huge Retirement Costs That Are Often Overlooked

Does your retirement budget account for all of these costs?

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.