Living people lose benefits after being declared dead

Stuck in limbo after the US Social Security Administration declared her dead, Marjorie Wall decided to Get Gephardt. (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) — Marjorie Wall is very much alive but the Social Security Administration has declared her dead. Now, her social security payments have stopped, her bank account has been closed, and her medical insurance has been canceled.

“I can't go on with my life,” she said. “I hate it.”

It's a mistake Wall says she has tried to get corrected for months.

“I called up Social Security and they said, ‘We'll get it cleared up right away,’” she said.

When that didn’t work, Wall went into a Social Security office so they could see she's alive and well.

“I showed them I'm standing right here,” she said. “They wrote out a little declaration and I signed it and they got a copy of my driver's license and they said it was okay.”

Okay It was not. Month after month the payments don't arrive and Wall remains unable to go to the doctor or get her medication refilled. Dead people don’t get health benefits.

“It's devastating,” she said. “I'm non-existent.”

Get Gephardt tracked Wall’s issue to a massive list called the Death Master File. It lists the millions of people who die every year in the United States and is kept and maintained by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

But our investigation found the file contains plenty of errors.

Social Security adds about 2.8 million death records to their database a year. Of that, less than half of one percent of those additions are in error, the SSA says.

However, crunching the numbers, that still translates to approximately 9,800 Americans having to prove they are still alive after payments and benefits are cut off.

The issues also have the attention of lawmakers. In 2015, a Senate hearing was convened to address the issues.

A woman named Judy Rivers testified that she has been declared dead twice.

A senator form Michigan testified that a US Veteran in his state lost VA benefits after being declared dead.

“I've seen over 20 hearings in the Senate and in Congress over the Death Master File,” Rivers testified. “So far, I have seen nothing come out of any of these hearings.”

Get Gephardt could find that little has been done in the years since the hearing to remedy the continuing errors. From these hearing came a bill that makes it easier for folks to be added to the list. The SSA says that allows them to combat fraud.

“We collect death information to timely stop paying social security beneficiaries who have died and to begin paying benefits to survivors,” Sean Brune with the SSA, testified.

He claimed that the Death Master File prevents $50 million in improper payments each month.

Others who testified before Congress say Social Security moves quickly to correct mistakes when they're caught. Victims like Wall say otherwise.

Get Gephardt took Wall’s case to Social Security. This time, Social Security was able to do something it hadn't done the dozens of times she requested it: they took her name off the Death Master File.

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