Reports of your death may be premature

And they may terminate your Social Security

You’ve heard of people who were declared dead, much to their own surprise. Think this cannot happen to you? The odds that it can happen are increasing. In 2013, NBC News reported the disturbing fact that roughly 28,000 erroneous deaths are logged into the Social Security Administration (SSA) Death Master File, each year.

Mark Pinney, interviewed by NBC News, found out he was declared dead when the grocery store rejected his bank card. Imagine his shock when he went to the bank to ask why, and they told him his account was closed because they’d learned he was dead. Then they said until he could prove he was alive, he could do nothing about it. Not only was his only source of income – his disability check – halted, but he also could not access the money which remained in his account.

At the local SSA office, he explained the problem to the employee. “He wasn’t surprised,” Pinney told NBC. “He was very professional about it, joked about it a little and said this happens occasionally.” All of this happened in 2010, and as it turned out, he’d been declared dead in 2007, but SSA got the news in 2010. Pinney’s family and friends made a lot of jokes about his walking dead status. But the fallout was less amusing. It would take six weeks with no income or access to his own money to clear it up. And even then, the SSA would not reimburse him for the missed payments.

The fix

To solve a problem he didn’t create, he was forced to get a note from his doctor, and send a picture ID and a notarized statement that he was indeed alive, to the SSA. They eventually cleared it up – sort of – but never told him how the error happened, or confirmed he was taken off the Death Master File list. In fact, a year later, NBC News checked and said he was still on it.

Currently a woman in my area is battling the same situation Pinney faced. When her SS check stopped she learned she too, had been reported dead. In her case, the error happened when a woman by the same name died in a local hospital. Somehow, the SS clerk entered only the name on the Death Master File, and did not check accompanying details. Boom! An innocent person is headed for financial disaster.

As with Mark Pinney, the SSA is working to clear up their mess but they refuse to pay this woman for the missed payments, or to provide emergency funds.

Fortunately this woman belongs to a church that is helping her. Not everyone has that resource to fall back on. It’s doubtful that a commercial business could cause such a disaster and get away with simply washing their hands of it.

That’s not all

You may wonder how banks are informed of a death and use that to shut down bank accounts. The SSA sells the personal identification information of deceased individuals to the public, like banks and credit bureaus. Yes, that means they sell the SSN and birth date, and other information. Dead people don’t care (although thieves know there is a window of time when they can swoop in and open credit accounts in the name of a deceased person) but what about the person who was erroneously declared dead and his or her SSN was made public?

NBC News told the story of Laura Todd who was declared dead when someone mistyped the SSN, and the typo happened to match Todd’s SSN. Her ordeal took eight years to clear up. She told NBC News her tax returns were rejected every year. That made her ineligible for refunds and tax rebates she was due.

According to Forbes Magazine Tax Specialist Kelly Erb, anyone who is declared dead may find it impossible to get loans or mortgages, get a driver’s license, or start SS or disability when they become eligible. Bank accounts slam shut along with your access to your funds. “It can be literally, a living nightmare,” Erb says.

There seems to be no easy answer, but it’s clear, if this happens to you, the fix is up to you, not the SSA. Schedule an appointment at your local SSA office and start collecting your ID:

1. Get a copy of the death certificate at the county/borough recorder or clerk’s office. This certificate should show who reported you dead. Tell the clerk you also need a form to apply for an amended death certificate. The person who reported you dead will be contacted and will have to sign the amended form.

2. Also get a certified copy of your birth certificate.

3. You may need a letter from your doctor stating you are alive.

Take all of this information to the SSA, and with luck, they will go to work fixing the error. However:

• You’ll still need to convince others, like the bank that you’re alive. If you can, go in person, and if you can’t, write letters.

• Check your credit report regularly to verify whether you’ve been the victim of identity theft based on the SSA error.