NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 2, 2009

The Social Security Administration has continued to pay millions of dollars in benefits to dead Americans, and other elderly U.S. residents are at risk of losing badly needed aid because they're improperly recorded as deceased, federal investigators warn in a new report.

The consequences of either bureaucratic error can be severe.  The addition of erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination, cause severe financial hardship and distress to affected individuals, investigators with the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General noted in the report, which was released Sunday.

The mistakes cost taxpayers and individual beneficiaries in different ways.  Taxpayers are losing money when benefits are paid to the deceased.  Individuals get into trouble when they're prematurely pronounced dead:

  • In Southern California and elsewhere last year investigators analyzed 305 Social Security beneficiaries who were recorded as deceased in their Social Security Administration files; at least 140 of them were still alive.
  • Investigators say that more than 6,000 current Social Security beneficiaries are recorded as being deceased; an untold number of them are still, in fact, alive.

Those affected can feel the problem acutely even if they're still getting Social Security checks, because Social Security death records can be used by other agencies, say observers.  Several individuals told investigators that they "had to prove to the Internal Revenue Service they were not deceased before receiving a refund," investigators noted.  Some sought congressional help.

On the flip side of the problem, payments were made to dead beneficiaries in at least 88 out of the 305 cases studied by investigators.  Some of these improper payments continued for years. For instance:

  • A New York City resident died in April 1990. Nonetheless, Social Security checks of $1,185 were mailed out monthly, and cashed, until October 2008. 
  • Investigators have since charged a suspect with improperly taking more than $210,000 in benefits. 
  • All told, investigators found $2 million in improper payments were made to the 88 deceased beneficiaries.

Source: Michael Doyle, "Social Security Audit Finds Dead People Getting Checks," McClatchy Newspapers, June 30, 2009.

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