After my spouse passed away recently, I received a letter of condolence from, of all places, Medicare.
They told me they were very sorry for my loss and gave me an 800 number to call if his death was a mistake. Sadly, there was no mistake. But the letter did lead me to wonder exactly how many people are declared dead in error each year in the U.S.
The short answer is about 13,000 citizens are turned into the walking dead.
Evidently, there is something called the “Death Master File,” and once your name gets in that file – even erroneously – it can take quite some time to get it removed. Once you are in that file, Social Security will notify your banks, your pensions, your medical personnel, your health insurance, the DMV and pretty much any account that is in your name and carries your Social Security number.
It’s not as if you can call a 1-800-NOT-DEAD number and straighten this out immediately. Evidently just showing up at the office breathing is not enough to get you taken out of this file, either. You have to offer some other proof of life.
If you happen to find out that you’re dead, and you are miraculously still breathing, make an appointment with your local Social Security office. You must bring in original documents (not copies) proving your identity. A driver’s license, state ID card or a passport are good examples of documents that are considered acceptable. Bring them with you.
After you offered proof that you are still on the right side of the dirt, so-to-speak, ask the clerk for a “proof of life” letter so you can straighten out your finances.
This exact scenario happened to Mark Twain, who famously quipped, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” He might have added that when you try to undo this mess, you might become greatly aggreivated. We must go through the very real headache of trying to undo a bureaucratic nightmare.
In addition, there is the possibility your loved one might be declared immortal.
In 2016, an inspector general with the Social Security Administration reported that more than “6.5 million Americans aged 112 and older still have active social security numbers.”
The moral to the story: If you receive a notice of condolence from Medicare or the Social Security Administration, feel free to have a good laugh but get to work right away to straighten out the situation. If you do have a loved one pass, run their credit to make sure they have been declared deceased. Do not leave this to chance and assume everything is going to work out for the best.
Do not assume anything (surely, you’ve heard the old joke about the meaning of the word “assume”). It is crucial to make sure information is reported correctly, or you will live to regret it.
Kathleen Rowe-Glendon is a former Bee visiting editor and a community activist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.