Cases of Mistaken Death Reports Low but Costly

Beyond the Numbers

Thursday, March 24, 2016
Posted by: 
The Communications Division

Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes; just ask New York’s Patricia LaPorta.

Recently, NBC New York told the story of the 43-year-old LaPorta, who SSA mistakenly declared deceased in 2014. Though the error has been corrected in SSA’s records, other government agencies that received the erroneous death information continue to report LaPorta as deceased, leaving her unable to open a bank account, borrow money, obtain a passport, or even file her taxes.  

LaPorta might be alive and well in the physical sense, but her financial health may be in critical condition.

Erroneous Death Reports

As Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll told NBC New York, SSA reports that there are fewer than 1,000 cases each month in which the agency mistakenly declares a living person is deceased.  That number tracks with an audit report we issued in 2011 that found that, over a three-year period, about 36,000 people were erroneously listed as deceased in SSA’s death records.

SSA receives about 2.5 million death records each year from many sources, so its error rate is very low. Mistakes might occur for various reasons—States might send incorrect or incomplete death information to SSA, or data entry errors might occur if SSA employees manually input death records, for example. When SSA becomes aware it has posted a death record in error, the Agency moves quickly to correct the situation, as it did with LaPorta.

However, we remain concerned about this issue, because when SSA adds a death entry to its records, it shares that information with nine benefit-paying Federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Thus, SSA’s erroneous death entries can lead to mistaken benefit terminations and cause severe financial hardship and distress to affected people. As LaPorta shared in the NBC New York story, when errors like this occur, it can be a long and difficult process to resurrect your financial life.

Electronic Death Registration

The good news is that SSA continues to support the expansion of Electronic Death Registration, or EDR, to improve death reporting and verification. Through EDR, SSA partners with State bureaus of vital statistics—the keepers of State birth and death records—to automate SSA’s collection of death information.

EDR is an electronic process through which a participating State verifies the name and Social Security number of a deceased person against SSA’s records before the State issues a death certificate and transmits the report to SSA. The process virtually eliminates death-reporting errors that can occur with paper records and manual death entries.

Currently, 42 States, New York City, and the District of Columbia participate in EDR. New York State, LaPorta’s home, does not yet participate in EDR. Reasons for States’ non-participation in EDR can include budget or electronic systems issues. States receive EDR funding from Health and Human Services (HHS), and SSA continues to encourage funding for HHS to support nationwide implementation of EDR.     

Monitor Your Records

As we said, SSA receives and processes millions of death records per year, at a very high accuracy rate. But you should still, as common practice, monitor your financial and credit records for any inaccuracies or irregularities.

If you suspect or have been told by another government agency that you have been reported as deceased, bring your identity records to your local Social Security office to correct the error. SSA can then assist with documentation you will need to fix the mistake with other agencies and conduct other financial or government business.