Life takes a terrible turn when the government says you are dead


BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Every year, thousands of living breathing Americans suddenly find out they are “dead” because the U.S. Social Security Administration enters their names in the Death Master File by mistake.

For those who end up on the government’s dead list, your life suddenly feels like a zombie movie, but it is all too real, “I mean everything, or where I go, I don’t exist,” said Nancy Pipalski, who was in the Death Master File until she contacted Call 4 Action.

How are mistakes made? One factor: everyone who has been issued a Social Security Number will eventually end up in the Death Master File. Those who don’t have a Social Security Number—many older Americans didn’t get a SSN–and die do not get on the list, so crooks can wreak havoc with that.

Because millions of older folks never registered with Social Security, at last count the government listed about 5 million Americans 112 years old—an obvious error. When the SSN of someone who actually has died is misfiled by one digit, that put the wrong person in the DMF, too.

Life for Marilyn Emerson was hard enough when she lost her husband of nearly 60 years, but she would soon learn the Social Security Administration had also buried her–by declaring the grieving widow dead, too.

“You are now all by yourself, and you don’t have anybody–I don’t have him to talk to anymore, and I just have myself.”

Within days after Marilyn’s husband Howard died last May, the Southtowns grandmother’s life took another turn when she went to the bank, “They told me that I was deceased.”

Emerson’s credit card was cancelled, but the bank figured it was because the card was a joint account with Howard’s. So they issued a new card in just Marilyn’s name.

“They said it will work, and I said okay. So we filled it all out, and next day she called me, and she says it was declined–it says you are deceased. I says I told you that yesterday.”

It seems once your name is entered in Social Security’s Death Master File–which banks, credit bureaus, and insurance companies check regularly–it is difficult getting off.

Kathy Greenawalt has seen Social Security’s blunder zapping the life from her close friend, “You can’t take away the emotional impact of all of this, especially having just lost her husband, and going through that grieving process.”

Just last month, another of the “living dead” Nancy Pipalski contacted Call 4 Action after actually going to her nearby Social Security office on several occasions to show them she is still among the living.

“I have been here, you have seen me,” Pipalski I gave them my drivers license, they asked me all these things about my family and stuff, and I gave them all the answers, but I was still dead in their eyes.”

A few years ago, David Poole also had to beckon Call 4 Action, when his Social Security benefits disappeared from his bank account, “They said, well there is good news, bad news–your money is there, but you are dead.”

But Social Security officials say their recordkeeping is improving. Until a few years ago, as many as 9,000 live Americans would end up in the Death Master File each year, but now officials say they have cut those mistakes down to about 7,000 a year.

Part of the reason for improvement is the agency’s use of the web, by setting up the Electronic Death Registration, or EDR. Forty-two states are now filing death reports, electronically, through health departments, hospitals, and funeral homes.

As a state, New York is among the 8 states that have not enrolled in EDR, but there are 5 counties that are taking part in a pilot rollout of the state’s EDRS, the Electronic Death Registration System. New York City is a full participant.

Those whose lives have been turned upside down by a premature death are praying for a full implementation of those improvements. Nancy Pipalski had her moments of feeling surreal, “I did not know if I was alive or not. I just wanted people to touch me and hold me. I did not think I existed.”

For Marilyn Emerson, too much heartache too soon “Now I’ve got another problem, and at my age, I cannot deal with all this. I was in tears.”

The New York State Department of Health is gradually rolling out the Electronic Dead File, by region, this year. Erie and Niagara counties are supposed to be fully operational by the end of March, but it seems state officials haven’t contacted anyone here locally to implement the program.

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