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No easy fix for woman erroneously declared 'dead'

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WEST VALLEY CITY — An elderly West Valley City woman is very much alive and well. But due to an error, the Social Security Administration declared her dead.

Lillian Torrey, 91, went without income for nearly two months because of the mistake. Her family had hoped it would be an easy fix, but that wasn't the case. Torrey had no idea she was considered dead until her family received two letters from her bank.

"One (stated) they were going to refund her Social Security payments, and the second one (stated) that her payments from the railroad retirement board are going back," said her granddaughter, Susan Sequera.

Torrey's insurance company stopped coverage and her Medicare benefits went away because of the error. She and Sequera soon discovered being "reborn" is no easy task.

"We spent two days on the telephone trying to get someone to talk to us," Sequera said.

What to Do if You've Been Declared Dead
  • Find out who reported you as dead
  • Get a copy of the death certificate
  • Fill out a form to amend the certificate
  • Take certified copy of amended death certificate and photo ID to local Social Security office
  • Possibly contact bank, credit bureaus and other entities that thought you were dead
Source: CNN Money and Identity Theft Resource Center

Eventually, Torrey's family discovered she had been declared dead on Jan. 24, the same day her former husband's second wife died. It was an amazing coincidence, but no one at Social Security, the Union Pacific retirement board or the mortuary that handled the second wife's services would admit they made a mistake.

"We still do not know who reported her dead," Sequera said. "We still do not know if there was some sort of scam going on."

Getting scammed is a very real concern. The Social Security Administration would not comment on the case, but reports that every year some 14,000 Americans are mistakenly reported dead.

Most of those names end up on what's called the "Death Master File," which is an online list of Social Security numbers of all people who have died. The agency is required to publish the file so banks and lenders know when a specific number is no longer valid. But identity thieves have been known to hit the list before lenders.

"Your odds after you pass away of being hit by this go up astronomically because your (Social Security) number and the rest of your identity are now public," said Bob Sullivan, a technology writer for

Efforts to find Torrey on the "Death Master File" were unsuccessful. A Social Security representative came to her home last week and confirmed what Torrey knew — she's still alive.

"It's nice to know you're dead and come back to life," she said.

So now, her Social Security and retirement benefits are being returned. But Torrey still has no idea when she'll get her insurance and Medicare back.

"If she were to have a problem and take her out in an ambulance this afternoon, we're going to have a huge bill on our hands," Sequera said. "How are we going to pay for it?"

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Bill Gephardt


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