What to do if the Government Declares You Dead

How to Get Social Security to Give You 'Proof of Life'

Zombies appearing at Comic-Con International 2016
Zombies at Comic-Con International 2016. Phillip Faraone / Getty Images

You might arrangements for somebody to take care of your affairs after you die, but what if that “somebody” ends up being you? What should you do if the Social Security Administration (SSA) prematurely declares you "dead?"

I’m Not Quite Dead Yet

It starts with little clues, like when your ATM card no longer access your bank account or your druggist informs you that your health insurance seems to have been cancelled. You actually start to feel like you no longer exist.

Then, the next day, a letter from the Social Security Administration confirms your fears by offering its sympathy for your death, informing you that your monthly benefit payments will stop and that any payments made since your “death” would be removed from your bank account. Poor, poor dead you.

Being incorrectly tagged as dead by Social Security can be devastating. Once SSA decides you are dead, it publishes your full name, Social Security number, birthday and supposed date of death in a publicly-accessible document called the Death Master File.

Created to help prevent fraud, like somebody getting a credit card in a dead person’s name, or using dead peoples’ names to get tax refunds, the Death Master File too often exposes living people incorrectly listed on it to identity theft.

Most cases of being incorrectly flagged as deceased are due to simple clerical errors, sometimes related to the actual death of close relatives – like spouses – who have the same last names. Sometimes states send incorrect or incomplete death information to SSA, or data entry errors might occur if SSA employees manually input death records. 

How Often Does it Happen?

How likely are you to be incorrectly listed as dead?

According to a 2011 audit report from the Social Security Administration’s inspector general, from May 2007 to April 2010, almost 36,657 living people – 12,219 per year -- had been incorrectly listed as deceased on the Death Master File. The inspector general further estimated that since the file’s inception in 1980, from 700 to 2,800 people had been incorrectly declared dead every month -- a total of more than 500,000.

Considering that the SSA receives about 2.5 million death records each year from many sources, the error rate is really very low, and when the SSA becomes aware it has posted a death record in error, the agency typically moves quickly to correct the situation. 

Maintaining the Death Master File involves a complex, multi-level reporting process, so most cases of being incorrectly flagged as deceased are due to simple clerical errors; sometimes related to the actual deaths of close relatives, like spouses, who have the same last names.

How Do You Fix It?

It’s easy to prove you are not “a” dead person, but not so easy to prove you are not “the” dead person. How do you do it?

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), if you suspect you might have been incorrectly listed as dead on your Social Security record, you should visit – in person -- your local Social Security office as soon as possible. Most offices allow you to call ahead for an appointment. When you go, make sure to bring at least one of the following pieces of identification with you:

  • Passport;
  • Adoption record;
  • Driver's license;
  • Employee ID card;
  • Military record;
  • School ID card, record or report card;
  • Marriage or divorce record;
  • Health insurance card (except a Medicare card);
  • Certified copy of medical record;
  • Life insurance policy;
  • Court order for name change; or
  • Church membership that establishes your identity.

Important: The SSA stresses that the identification documents you show them must be original documents or copies certified by the agency that issued to them. They will not accept non-certified photocopies or notarized copies.

In addition, all identification documents must be current. Expired documents will not be accepted.

Finally, the SSA will not accept a receipt showing you applied for a document.

Ask for Your ‘Proof of Life’ Letter

When and if the correct your records, the SSA can send you a letter that you can give to banks, doctors or others to show that your death report was in error. This letter is called the "Erroneous Death Case - Third Party Contact Notice.” Be sure to request this letter when you visit your SSA office.

The Death Master File Cuts Both Ways

Just as the SSA can wrongly declare people dead, it can declare then immortal, which poses an expensive problem for all living taxpayers.

In May 2016, another SSA inspector general reported that more than 6.5 million Americans aged 112 and older still have active Social Security numbers. Seems strange, considering that a New York resident believed at the time to be the world’s oldest living man at age 112, died in 2013.