By Karl Smallwood
Asa K. asks: What happens when people are accidentally declared dead, and how do they prove that they’re alive?
As with most legal matters, answering the question of what exactly happens when a person is accidentally declared dead varies from country to country, although, curiously, from our research, with some exceptions like a few instances we found in Canada particularly, it seems as if the United States is one of the few countries where the aftermath of this can be long term devastating to the unlucky individual, even after they get declared alive again.
But to start with, how exactly does one actually get accidentally declared dead in the first place? It turns out in pretty much every nation, most of the time simply via clerical error. In modern times, this usually just means a typo or the like. So, yes, particularly for you U.S. citizens reading this, just go ahead and think about that your life could be ruined, or at least a good portion of it, by a simple typo made by some random person at any given moment…
On that note, although exact figures are hard to come by, it’s estimated by the Social Security Administration that in the US some seven to fourteen thousand people are accidentally declared dead each year. Numbers from other nations were seemingly impossible to come by, but we did at least dig out that in Canada from 2007-2013 they had approximately 5500 people accidentally declared dead, or an average of about 900 people per year. Given that the United States has approximately nine times as many people as Canada, this would put the equivalent number at about 8,000 people per year, so right inline with the low end estimate of the United States’ numbers.
Alright, so a misplaced finger by some worker at a funeral home, hospital, etc. has now accidentally killed you as far as the government is concerned. How do you fix it?
It turns out correcting such a mistake pretty much everywhere we looked at, in theory, is as simple as walking into the appropriate government office and letting the fact that you just walked into a government office speak for itself, after of course you provide sufficient identification to prove you are who you say you are. For example, in the United States you just need to visit your local Social Security Administration office with one piece of appropriate picture ID, such as a driver’s license, passport, etc. and inform them of the mistake in their records.
And, indeed, in reports of this happening to people in several different nations we looked at, this seems to more or less clear the matter up within a few weeks at most. Certainly this few weeks can be a bit traumatizing and make things difficult in a variety of ways, as we’ll get into, but it’s more of a blip, outside of some isolated reports from Canada, where for some people the ordeal dragged on for months, and some not so isolated reports from the U.S.
In fact, the most outrageous report we could find from Sweden, for example, simply noted that the 47 year old Swedish woman was inconvenienced by having to spend several hours unblocking various accounts after the government agency dutifully apologized for the mistake and had it corrected in their system. For her trouble, she was awarded 20,500 kronors (about $2,200).
Then there’s the United States… owing to a quirk of the way the Death Master file works and the way various entities use it, as well as previous to a few years ago the fact that this file was available to anyone who wanted to buy it, let’s just say things are a bit more complicated, even though getting declared alive again is actually relatively straightforward as described.
But before we go any further, we should probably talk about what this Death Master file actually is. Various nations have their own ways of tracking this and rules and regulations governing such a dataset, but it mostly just comes down to a file maintained by some branch of the government that gets names added to it via reports from various groups or people about a death.
In Britain, for instance, a name can be added by anyone simply by going to the appropriate government website and noting a death, as well as providing appropriate proof of death, such as a copy of a death certificate. Other sources that don’t necessarily have to include proof of death include reports from places like funeral homes, hospitals, and other such institutions.
As you can imagine from all this, there is more than a little room for accidental error here, given the wide variety of sources this information is being collated from, and with little in the way of verification occurring as to the accuracy of everything coming in. In essence, these types of systems are fairly rife for an occasional typo to pop up and for no one to notice until the accidentally declared dead person themselves find out, often in traumatic fashion.
This all brings us around to the United States’ Social Security Administration Death Master file.
It turns out this was never meant to be used as a definitive record for deaths. It was originally put in place in 1936 as a way for the Social Security Administration to help make sure they weren’t paying out benefits to people no longer alive and for other use internally.
In fact, the Social Security Administration explicitly notes that this data should NOT be used as a definitive record of who is alive or dead in the United States. As the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration in 2015, Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr., stated before Congress, “SSA does not receive death information for all individuals, thus SSA does not guarantee the [Death Master File’s] completeness.”
Nevertheless, as with the Social Security number itself, this eventually got coopted by various groups who needed a reasonably accurate dataset of who was alive and who was not.
This all brings us around to why being accidentally declared dead can be so devastating to an individual.
It turns out that this data is used by many companies, most pertinent to the topic at hand being financial institutions and agencies doling out various benefits, like retirement and the like. Once the death database is updated, this information percolates out to all of these institutions automatically. And then, even worse, from there percolates out to other institutions who don’t use the Death Master file directly, but buy or share information from institutions that do.
So, to begin with, upon “death” all government benefits you may have been entitled to from Social Security to a government pension will be stopped. While this may or may not be an immediate problem for a given person, it turns out that as soon as you’re declared dead, it’s entirely possible that your bank accounts, credit cards, and the like will get frozen and any attempts to retrieve money from them by you will be flagged as fraud. Depending on the institution, there may or may not be issues accessing any joint account you hold as well.
On top of this, upon notification of the passing, everyone you owe money to will suddenly be able to claim that money from your estate, and even potentially do so when their systems find out you’re dead… because apparently even being dead isn’t a good enough excuse to stop paying back your student loans.
On the plus side, if you’re married at the time you’re accidentally declared dead, your spouse or whoever you named as a beneficiary on such a plan will be eligible to claim any life insurance policy you have in place. Unfortunately, this is money they will later be expected to pay back once you’re proved to be alive. So not a great perk.
Being dead, of course, you can also expect that you may end up losing your job as it’s kind of hard to employ a dead person officially, turns out. On that note, you’ll also find it exceptionally difficult to find work during your time as a legally dead person. At best, you’ll have to work for cash under the table.
And it’s important to note in all of this, it’s not uncommon at all for you to be suspected of identity theft and possibly even get arrested, which will also come with its own host of problems when the police try to enter your details into their system to process you.
Speaking of being arrested for stealing your own identity, from 1980 to 2013 thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Death Master File in the U.S. was publicly accessible to anyone who wanted to pay the fee to the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS).
This file includes the person’s name, date of birth, date of death, social security number, whether death is verified or a death certificate documented, and, up until 2011, also included the last known zip code, and zip code where any death benefit was sent.
This made it all ridiculously easy for actual identify thieves to work their magic and try to get away with all sorts of shenanigans in your name, with the immediate few week window directly after you’re declared dead being highly targeted as not every system, and maybe not even you yourself, at this point may be aware you’ve been declared dead.
Thus, if you were one of those unlucky individuals, when you once again get declared alive again, officially, you then got the reward of having to deal with whatever the identify thief managed to do with your good name while you were dead.
Today, in an attempt to stop the identify theft problem for the dead or accidentally declared dead, only approved institutions have immediate access to the current Death Master file, with a three year waiting period before the wider public’s copy of the file will show a given person’s death, though for various other reasons identify theft of the recently deceased is still a major problem.
This brings us around to another systemic problem with the way the system works in the U.S.- the way the file is updated, or not in some cases.
The version of the Death Master File that is downloadable is updated weekly, but only the last six revisions can be downloaded directly and if you want to go any further back than that for the full list, you have to order a copy loaded onto a CD.
The problem here is that if the institution updates irregularly, they might completely miss the revision that you were actually declared alive again, with this marked in the file with a “D” indicating your record should be deleted from any copies of the database stored by these various institutions. Miss that revision and your name will remain in these systems’ databases.
On top of that, many institutions that don’t use the Death Master File do buy and share such information from other institutions, who may for a time have the erroneous information. Thus, it may simply be up to you in all these types of cases to prove to them you’re once again alive, officially. And, again, do expect when you’re doing so that they’ll suspect you of being an identify thief because of how relatively common identity theft of the dead is.
Also, even if you do manage to convince the world you’re alive, there’s always the chance that someone, somewhere will get their hands on an outdated version of the Death Master File and accidentally kill you again in whatever system they use, which in turn might get shared around even further, even potentially to institutions you already proved you were alive to, but now may have to do it again.
For some people who’ve had this happen, they note it can be like a game of Wac-o-mole for sometimes several years later.
To be fair, it’s noted that, much like in most countries we looked at, once you’ve satisfactory proven to the Social Security Administration you’re indeed still alive, it generally takes only a few weeks at most to fix in their database, though there are exceptions where it sometimes takes a lot longer.
Further, the Social Security Administration will then issue you with an “erroneous death case — third party contact” which you can use as proof of you not actually being dead and not being an identify thief when dealing with banks, hospitals or any other service or person that currently believes you’re not alive.
Sometimes even this isn’t enough though and some financial institution especially are still noted as being difficult to convince that you’re not a zombie- again, real identify thieves are rather good at forging things, leading some institutions to be skeptical. If this happens, you’re advised to contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to speak to the institution on your behalf.
Alternatively, you can always contact your “local congressional representative‘s constituent services office” if you want to circumvent all the red tape and have the problem addressed directly, though your mileage may vary with this particular avenue.
As for how long it take to correct the mistake in the U.S., there’s no definitive answer but, again, there are documented cases of people fighting with various institutions for years to prove they’re alive and there are examples of people dying in real life before they were able to fully correct the mistake.
A notable case is that of Judy Rivers who spent seven years dealing with the ramifications of being accidentally declared dead, during which this woman who formerly had over $80,000 in her bank account alone, along with a rather good career at the time, upon being declared dead became financially destitute, lost her job and house, among other things.
In her own words to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs who were looking into ways in which the system might be fixed:
I could never have imagined I would reach the point of hopelessness, homelessness, loss of reputation and credibility, unable to obtain a job, an apartment, a student loan, or even a cell phone. Suspected as an identity thief by nearly every apartment manager or Human Resource Director I encountered became a way of life. Each time I got into my car I was panic stricken that the police would stop me and I would have to try and prove my identity.
Another example is that of retired army drill sergeant Jerry Miller who was accidentally declared dead four times, each time resulting in him having his veteran’s benefits and government pension stopped. And, no, he wasn’t the random victim of an unfortunate typo four times in a row to the Social Security Administration. That just happened once. His case was one of those where an old copy of the Death Master File was being passed around and simply just kept getting him declared dead again by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Each time he’d prove he was still alive and it would be fine for a while, until he’d once again find himself declared dead by them.
Miller almost lost his house, suffered failing health when he was unable to get needed prescriptions and received a letter asking him to pay back around $94,000 dollars worth of benefit cheques he’d supposedly fraudulently cashed while previously being “dead”. Of course, he was very much alive and entitled to those cheques but was now in a bit of legal hot water over the matter.
Perhaps the most bizarre story of all though is that of Donald Miller Jr whose request to be declared legally alive was turned down by a judge. This one was not, however, a case of a typo, but rather a case of a disappearance. In a nutshell, Miller disappeared from his Ohio home sometime in 1994. After an investigation, Miller was declared dead in absentia, his life insurance policy was paid out and his Social Security number retired. In 2005 Miller resurfaced and revealed that he’d fled because he owed around $26,000 in child support to his ex-wife that he couldn’t afford.
Unaware he’d “died”, Miller tried to have the decision overturned so that he could get a driver’s license after having got his life back together only to have the decision challenged by his ex-wife. It would later turn out that Miller’s ex-wife couldn’t afford to pay back the life insurance settlement she’d received as a result of his death and that him staying “dead” would allow her to avoid doing so. When the case got to court, because of various quirks of the law, a judge was forced to rule that Miller had left it too long to challenge the decision, despite his contention that he didn’t know he’d died.
So, yes, the judge in this case, knowing Miller was who he claimed to be and was literally standing in front of him, declared him legally dead anyway.
So yeah, in short, if you live anywhere and are accidentally declared dead by your government, expect the next month or two to be a bit of a living hell, but as far as we can find, this usually gets cleared up pretty quickly, with exceptions. But if you live in the United States, just because of some quirks about how the system works there, as one Liz Weston of the Denver Post aptly noted, “If the Social Security Administration thinks you’re dead, you might wish you were.”
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius