Mistakenly declared dead: How one error can lead to years of devastation 

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Elise Allen, 13, of Temple Hills, Maryland, has quite the summer story to tell her friends. According to the Social Security Administration, the teen is deceased.

“I’m right here. I’m living,” said Elise.

Her mom told the News4 I-Team she found out her daughter had been declared dead after receiving denial letters for medical benefits.

“Medical insurance was denied. I had dental benefits were denied. We got life insurance telling me she’s dead,” said Melissa Allen. 

She says the Department of Social Services told her to contact Medicaid, which told her to contact the Social Security Administration.

“I just thought it was an error, human error that could be fixed quickly,” Allen said. “But I was wrong.”

The I-Team found others have sadly been down a similar road. In early 2022, the I-Team reported on an Arlington man who was trying to dig out of a mess.  

Darby Nye was declared deceased after some kind of mistake led the Social Security Administration to alert other government agencies that he was dead. That created a devastating domino effect on his health insurance, credit cards, even impacting Nye’s pension.

Although the agency couldn’t tell him how it happened, after several months the problem seemed to be corrected. But a year later, Nye is still listed as deceased “as far as the IRS is concerned,” he said.

What starts as a simple mistake can sometimes lead to months of trying to regain a person’s life. Susan Hogan and the News4 I-Team report on a problem that has monumental consequences with some questioning whether enough is being done to prevent it.

Over the summer, the Internal Revenue Service informed him about a potential problem with his tax return. According to their records, the “primary taxpayer on the tax return was deceased.” 

Unfortunately, what’s happening with Nye and Elise isn’t a fluke. According to attorney Joseph McClelland, this happens on almost a daily basis.

“The impact is the worst impact you can have on your credit report,” said McClelland.

He’s made a career out of helping people restore their “alive” status with the government. He says mistakes, even typos, can happen in many places, either with credit bureaus, lenders or the Social Security Administration. 

When mistakes happen at the SSA, that’s when the real trouble begins. When someone dies, they’re added to the Death Master File, a database used to start terminating benefit payments and report the death to other government agencies.  

 The I-Team found no one is really tracking exactly how often this happens, but a 2019 Social Security advisory report says 7,000 to 12,000 people are mistakenly declared dead each year. In a statement, the Social Security Administration said:

“Approximately 2.9 million deaths are reported to the Social Security Administration each year, and our records are highly accurate. Of these millions of death reports we receive each year, less than one-third of 1 percent are subsequently corrected. Deaths are reported to Social Security primarily from the states, but also from family members, funeral homes and financial institutions. If a person suspects that they have been incorrectly listed as deceased on their Social Security record, they should contact their local Social Security office as soon as possible. They can locate their nearest Social Security office at They should be prepared to send at least one piece of current (not expired) original form of identification. Part of the process of correcting records includes ensuring all current and past due benefits are paid. Social Security takes immediate action to correct our records and we can provide a letter that the error has been corrected that can be shared with other organizations."  

Both Nye and Elise are still working to convince the government they’re not dead. But both tell the I-Team it hasn’t been easy. 

“I want somebody to call me, email me or fix it, and then call me or email me or send me something in writing documentation stating that my daughter is alive and well,” Elise’s mom said.

Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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