Living with credit

Something called a ‘Death Master File’ ought to be accurate

Kelly Dilworth

Denied credit because the Social Security Administration thinks you’re dead? There’s still hope.

U.S. Sens. Tom Coburn and Tom Carper are trying to pass legislation that they say will significantly improve the accuracy of the Social Security Administration’s notoriously spotty death records.

New bill calls for a more accurate Death Master File

On July 24, the bipartisan duo introduced a bill promising to revamp the federally administered Death Master File, which records every known death in the United States. If passed, the legislation would ensure that the Social Security Administration’s death records are kept more rigorously up-to-date, so that errors — such as accidental omissions — are less likely to pop up. In addition, the legislation would make it easier for other federal agencies to access the information and make sure their files match.

The bill, dubbed the Improper Payments Agency Cooperation Enhancement Act of 2013 (S. 1360), is intended to cut down on the number of people who are mistakenly paid federal benefits long after they’ve passed away (a problem that was publicly highlighted in June when a federal audit showed that, between 2008 and 2010, about 1,000 dead farmers received federal subsidies more than a year after they died).

“Our bill ensures that the federal government makes it a higher priority to keep track of people who have died, shares that information with key federal agencies and ultimately prevents payments to people who are obviously no longer eligible for federal benefits and other federal payments,” said Sen. Tom Carper in a press release.

The bill is primarily aimed at identifying those who are actually dead, rather than resurrecting people who have been mistakenly killed off on paper. However, for those who are still living above ground, the legislation may have an unexpected side benefit: The stricter controls over the Social Security Administration’s death records could potentially reduce the number of people who are mistakenly declared dead by the federal agency.

Every month, about 1,000 people are accidentally added to the Death Master File, according to government estimates, as I noted in the story, “Rejected for credit? It could be because you’re dead.” When that happens, people who are still alive and well are shut off from federal benefits and are suddenly no longer able to get a job, rent a home or qualify for a loan.

According to numerous media reports profiling the walking dead, convincing the Social Security Administration that it needs to update its records is a bureaucratic nightmare that can often take months or even years to get cleared. In one particularly notorious case, it took Alabama resident Judy Rivers more than two years to get her credit history back after she was mistakenly declared dead by the Social Security Administration in 2010.

The Improper Payments Agency Cooperation Enhancement Act doesn’t mention people like Rivers who have been mistakenly classified as deceased. But a number of measures have been added to the bill that should make it much harder for those kinds of errors to slip through.

For example, the bill requires new safeguards to be put in place that will ensure that errors that have been identified by another federal agency or by a state or local government (or by the general public) are properly corrected. In addition, the bill requires the Social Security Administration to regularly check the registry for accuracy.

It’s not yet clear how effective the measures will be in clearing stubborn errors from the Social Security Administration’s records. But for those who are still trying to erase their names from the Death Master File, the renewed emphasis on accuracy is at least a step in the right direction — away from being undead.

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