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'I'm not deceased!': With her accounts frozen, Texas woman struggled to be removed from the 'Death Master File'

Erroneous news that you are dead can spread much more efficiently and quickly than the process of proving that you're actually still alive.

DALLAS — I have been doing this for a while, but I recently took part in something totally new to me, my first-ever interview with someone who was "dead." 

“It's just been a nightmare and I don't know how to go about fixing it,” an obviously still-breathing Paula Winslow told me.

In December, her husband passed away. They were separated and they didn’t have any joint finances. She received the death certificate, and she said all the information on it was correct. But somehow, weeks after he died, she got a letter in the mail, “That was addressed to the estate of Paula B. Winslow.”

Wait…to her estate? 

“I said, 'well that's really strange because I'm actually still living.'” 

But on paper (and in electronic records), Winslow wasn’t alive. And that had big implications.

“They closed my mortgage. They shut down my credit card…then my 401(k) was trying to…get a hold of me because they were closing out my 401(k) to send to my beneficiary.”

A long list of phone calls

Winslow had a lot of phone calls to make. And she was going to need more than just passwords, the last four digits of her social security number, her mother’s maiden name, and the street she grew up on. Winslow learned she would have to get notarized papers and fill out "proof of living" documents.

As she went through the process, Winslow said it became clear that her status was wrong at the Social Security Administration (SSA). 

The SSA said this is a very rare occurrence, “Approximately 3 million deaths are reported to the Social Security Administration each year and our records are highly accurate. Of these millions of death reports we receive each year, less than one-third of 1 percent are subsequently corrected.”

Winslow was one of those rare examples of a case needing a correction. After a while, on hold one day with the agency, Winslow said, “The lady that answered said 'yes, I can confirm that you are deceased.' I said, 'well, I'm not deceased.' So. when did I ‘die?'”

It was the day her husband had died. Somehow, her name was entered. 

“It's just one button and it reports to every single person,” said Winslow. 

Technically, when Social Security shares the information, they said it goes “To the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS) only.” The SSA said the NTIS then “sells it to private organizations such as banks and credit companies.”

Big implications of being wrongly listed as deceased

In Winslow’s case, the erroneous info went to a lot of places. So, since early January, this teacher by day has also been working evenings and staying up at night, too. 

“I have spent anywhere from one to two hours every single day on it. But then at night, I worry about it.”

That’s because, after months of proving she is alive, her mortgage was supposed to have been fixed. It wasn’t. 

“I got a letter this weekend that said that I was in arrears on my mortgage."

The auto draft that pays it had been frozen.

Also, she had stellar credit. “I had like an 830 [credit score]. so, this is what it looks like now,” she said as she held up her phone showing a credit reporting agency site that lists her account as N/A. It appeared that her record had been erased. And credit scores affect a lot of things.

She’s been concerned about what will happen when she files taxes. She has worried every time she has paid with a credit or debit card. She even panicked at the airport.

“I flew out to see my grandchildren and the guy was looking at the computer…and I'm thinking to myself, it's popped up…he’s not going to let me on the flight.”

Getting off the 'Death Master File'

After all her efforts, I sent one email to Social Security. Their response was prompt and apologetic, “We very much regret the error”. 

In the message, they explained something called the "Death Master File," which was created in 1980 and now contains more than 101 million such records. It looks like that’s where Winslow ended up.

The list helps prevent fraud. But it prevents a lot of necessities if you are not actually dead. One day after I contacted Social Security, Winslow messaged me. The agency had called her and emailed her an official letter that their “records DO NOT have a date of death” recorded for her. In other words, official recognition that she’s alive.

What to do if you’re incorrectly listed as deceased

Winslow doesn’t know how the erroneous information was received by the agency. 

The SSA said, “Deaths are reported to Social Security primarily from the States, but also from other sources, including family members, funeral homes, federal agencies, financial institutions, postal authorities, and internal sources from SSA’s payment records. The file contains both beneficiary and non-beneficiary death records and verified and unverified data.”

Social Security said others who experience this should do the following: “They should contact their local Social Security office as soon as possible. They can locate their nearest Social Security office here. They should be prepared to bring at least one piece of current (not expired) original form of identification. Social Security takes immediate action to correct our records and we can provide a letter that the error has been corrected that can be shared with other organizations.” 

Note: Even after you get that letter from the government stating that you are not dead, it is up to you to contact all your creditors to correct the erroneous information that you are deceased. As SSA explained, “Unfortunately, because death information is shared through the Death Master File, correction of credit and other records are not within our control.”

Winslow has been able to make things right with all her creditors and with credit reporting agencies, which offer further advice here and here on dealing with this kind of situation.

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