KARE 11 Investigates: Declared dead by government, woman loses benefits
BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. - The government mistakenly declared a Minnesota woman dead – causing her to lose the benefits she counted on to pay her rent, buy groceries, and see her doctor.
It happens to thousands of people every year. Because of mistakes made in a death records database maintained by the nation’s Social Security system, people’s lives are thrown into chaos.
None of death’s usual symptoms
Most folks go to church to worship the resurrected. But on a cold Sunday in March, KARE 11 found parents dropping their kids off in the nursery at Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park with a woman in need of resurrection herself.
“She doesn’t look very dead,” comments fellow nursery worker Anne Johnson. “She doesn’t act very dead, she acts very alive!”
To all who see her – and hear her infectious laugh – Sandra Siddall, 76, displays none of death’s usual symptoms.
According to Hennepin County and the federal government, however, Siddall is no longer in the land of the living.
“And she told me about it, and I’m going what?” said one of her friends at church.
Siddall is used to that reaction. The retired hairdresser says news of her death caught her by surprise, too.
“I got a letter from Social Security that I’m dead,” she said. “And I’m not dead!”
But Sandra found that proving that irrefutable truth was easier said than done.
She says she called Social Security every day for five-and-a-half weeks. Then, in frustration, she reached out to the KARE 11 investigative team.
“My death date is November 14, 2016, and they will not remove that,” Siddall said of her conversations with the government. “They say it’s a process.”
The mistake had a domino effect. Not only did the low-income retiree lose her social security, she also began receiving letters from Hennepin County saying that all her benefits have been discontinued.
“All of my support dropped,” Sandra explained. “My financial support, my insurance, my shelter, my utilities, my food.”
Sandra is not alone in battling the government over a mistaken death report.
In 2016, KARE 11 told the story of Roseville grocery clerk Steven Monno.
Thousands of Americans – like Steven and Sandra – are given financial death sentences each year when they are mistakenly placed on the Social Security Death Master File.
The Social Security Administration collects records of all deaths in the United States to help prevent fraudulent payments after people die. But they don’t fact check all the death reports before filtering them down to other government agencies. The records are even used by credit bureaus, banks, and businesses.
Congress knows about the death report mistakes and even held a hearing about them in 2015.
Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) introduced legislation more than a year ago designed to help correct these fatal flaws in Social Security death reporting. So far, Congress has failed to even vote on it.
Social Security officials tell KARE 11 these mistakes involve a tiny fraction of cases – less than 0.3 percent.
But that’s still roughly 7,400 people a year like Sandra who, through no fault of their own, have their lives thrown into chaos because they were mistakenly ended on paper.
“Just like that I’m nothing!” Sandra said. “What do I do in-between time? I don’t know!”
With her bank account drained, Sandra says she was paying her rent and buying groceries thanks to a loan from a friend.
KARE 11 was able to cut through the bureaucracy. After we contacted Social Security and Hennepin County for her, Sandra’s benefits were restored within a few days.
Social Security even sent her a letter confirming that her reported death was erroneous.
“They made a big mistake. She’s not dead!” exclaimed Sandra’s friend Anne. “She’s very much alive and we love her this way!”
The source of these mistakes on the Social Security Death Master File are often tough to pin down.
In Sandra’s case, KARE 11 discovered her mistaken death may have something to do with the death of an ex-husband.
Sandra has been divorced for more than 30 years, and says she did not even know that her former husband had passed away in Texas. However, records show his date of death was November 14, 2016 – the same day Social Security claimed Sandra died.