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What happens when SSA thinks you are dead?

The Social Security Administration maintains many important pieces of data involving most Americans. One of the most important is the list known as the Master Death File (MDF). Because SSA is responsible for paying disability and retirement benefits for millions of Americans, it is necessary that it keep close track of when beneficiaries die. Given the size of the system, failure to keep accurate records could lead to millions of dollars in overpayments from a system that is already financially stressed.

The definition of disability is "the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." And many who obtain benefits have severe medical conditions which often threaten their lives.

The severity of these conditions is demonstrated by the mortality rate of those who obtain benefits, which is three times that of other individuals their age. So it is not unusual for someone on receiving SSD benefits to make their way onto the MDF. 

Because your SSD benefits change over to your retirement benefits when you reach full retirement age, if a mistake occurs and you are listed on the MDF, any benefits you are receiving whether SSD or from the retirement program, will stop.

SSA processes 2.8 million deaths every year, so even a 0.001 percent error rate could mean 28,000 individuals mistakenly being listed a deceased. Currently, there are about 7,800 errors every year, and the process is becoming more accurate as more records are reported electronically, which reduces the likelihood of data entry errors.

For these "undead," inclusion on the MDF is a significant problem, as they may find their bank accounts frozen and utilities turned off, as businesses and other entities treat them as if they are dead. While it may sound amusing, it can become a giant headache for those inaccurately listed.

If this happens, you should go to your local St. Louis Social Security Office and bring a valid form of identification, like a drivers' license or passport, and they will correct SSA's files. They will also provide a form you can use to let your banks, insurance companies, and utilities know that you are in fact not dead.

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