FOX13 Investigates: How common is it to be declared dead by the government?

by: Kristin Leigh Updated:


The federal government declares thousands of people dead in its records each year who are still living.

“I’m not dead,” Gloria Osby said, in an interview with FOX13 six months after the Social Security Administration declared her dead in the “Death Master File.”

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“I’m very much alive,” Osby continued, her bones aching with age as she kneeled to sit on a bench at her apartment complex. “I’m just having a lot of problems.”

Osby suffers with dementia, frequent seizures, and other health problems. She collects a social security as income and she relies on Medicaid to help pay her prescription costs.

But when the government listed her as dead, bank accounts froze, nursing care stopped, doctors could no longer fill prescriptions, and social security checks ceased.

At a time in life when seniors like Osby rely on family and the government to look after them, Osby’s daughter told FOX13 the system failed.

“No medicine, no nurse coming out,” Marshelle Jones said, as she listed off the repercussions of Social Security’s mistake. “She can’t go to any doctor’s appointments. She has no income. Nothing.”

“It’s like she don’t even exist anymore.”

The mistake was made by an employee at a Social Security office in Memphis the same day Osby went to the local office to change her address.

“You can just – click of a button – and you’re dead,” Jones said, describing the employee as rude and impatient.

A few bad key strokes by a government employee shared a false death message with every major medical and financial institution in the United States.

The problem can’t be pinned to one specific employee, though, Dr. Thomas Lee of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston argues.

The issue is widespread human error.

“What I found is that it happens about as often as death by homicide by gun,” Lee told FOX13.

Lee wrote an article about the issue this year in the New England Journal of Medicine.

His interest in the issue was sparked by a patient who was dead according to medical records, but the patient picked up the phone when Lee called his family.

“I said, ‘I’m calling for a really weird reason,’ because I was quite taken aback,” Lee said. “He said, ‘I know... you’re calling about my death.’”

FOX13 took the issue to Washington D.C. to find out what federal authorities are doing to fix the issue.

“One big recommendation still is to get more data coming in electronically from the states,” Rona Lawson, Deputy Assistant Inspector General for the Social Security Administration, told FOX13.

Lawson blamed human error for thousands of false deaths, and pinned the responsibility on individual states. She said reporting deaths electronically would prevent the problem, in most cases.

The Social Security Administration has also made administrative changes to correct the issue, Lawson said. The number of errors dropped from 1,000 errors per month five years ago to about 500 errors per month now.

“There’s 2.5 million deaths a year and you’re only making 500 errors a month,” Lawson told FOX13. “That’s a really small percentage.”

But for the 500 families per month in the United States who are impacted by the mistake, the process to prove their alive is strenuous.

“You just pushed a button and you don’t think of the consequences,” Jones said.

Lee added the mistake is easy for government employees to make. But he said it’s difficult for citizens to correct once their bank accounts are frozen, their income is stalled, and their doctors and pharmacists are no longer able to help them.

“There was no way to go upstream and say, “Oh, just kidding,” Lee said.

It took at least three months for Osby and her family to prove a basic fact: Gloria Osby is alive.

“My daughter, she brought me back alive – you and her,” she said, talking to FOX13’s Kristin Leigh. “Without y’all, I’d probably be still dead.”

“I didn’t know people can do you that way.”