SSA depends on various sources for timely death reporting, and if deaths aren’t reported or concealed, that can potentially lead to improper payments and fraud.
When a Social Security beneficiary dies, the death is usually reported to SSA by a family member, a funeral home, or a government agency. Whoever does the reporting, according to SSA, the death should be reported as soon as possible. Often the funeral home will report the person’s death to SSA if the family gives them the deceased’s Social Security number.
What you may not know is that SSA cannot pay benefits for the month of death. So for anyone receiving Social Security benefits, the benefit received for the month of death and any following months must be returned to SSA. For example, when a person dies in January, no benefit payment is due in February or beyond.
Social Security guidelines state that if the deceased’s checks were received by direct deposit, a family member should contact the bank or other financial institution and ask them to return any funds received for the month of death or later. If paid by check, family members should not cash any checks received for the month the person dies or later. They should return the checks to Social Security as soon as possible.
Using someone else’s benefits after that person dies is a Federal crime—even if nobody reports the death to SSA, and even if the benefit delivery to a joint bank account continues. OIG is responsible for enforcing the Federal laws that prohibit misusing someone else’s Social Security benefits. When a source—a private citizen, a bank, an SSA employee, or another agency—reports to us that this may be happening, we’ll review the allegation and potentially open a criminal investigation. If the investigation finds evidence of a crime, a prosecutor may bring criminal charges and seek court-ordered restitution to SSA.
As the result of an OIG audit recommendation, SSA now matches records with other agencies to identify unreported deaths. These matches are a common source of referrals to OIG for investigation of fraud. Every year, we investigate several hundred cases like this. Here are two recent examples:
- A New Jersey man failed to inform Social Security that his grandmother died in 2004. Until 2015, he knowingly used her monthly widow’s benefits, which were deposited into their joint bank account. His decade-long deceit netted him over $96,000. Our investigation led to a criminal charge of theft of government funds. In August 2018, the man pled guilty, and in May 2019, a judge ordered him to repay the $96,000 to SSA, and sentenced him to 10 months of home confinement and 4 years of probation.
- After a Social Security retirement beneficiary in Texas died in 1997, his daughter continued to receive and use his benefits. Through records matching, SSA identified the man as possibly deceased in 2015, and referred the case to OIG. Our investigation confirmed the beneficiary was deceased and found evidence that the daughter misused her father’s benefits for 18 years. As a result of our investigation, the daughter pled guilty to theft of government funds. In March 2019, a judge sentenced her to 6 months in prison and ordered her to repay $117,126 to SSA.
We will continue to explore ways for SSA to identify all beneficiary deaths, and we will continue to pursue those who fraudulently use someone else’s benefits after death. If you want to report any type of Social Security fraud, you can do so online at https://oig.ssa.gov/report, or call 1-800-269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.