U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security Reviews Death Master File Accuracy, Use, Impact and Possible Change

Feb 2, 2012


Chaired by U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX), the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee (“Subcommittee”) on Social Security held a hearing in Washington D.C. today, February 2, 2012, on the accuracy, use and impacts of the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA’s”) Death Master File (“DMF”).  Options for change were also considered.

In announcing the hearing, Chairman Johnson stated, “Since 1980, Social Security has been required to publicly make available Americans’ personal information through the so-called Death Master File.  Nearly anyone can get this information, including identity thieves. Identity theft affects swindled businesses, American taxpayers and grieving families.  Also any one of us could find ourselves on that list by mistake – a mistake which could cause severe financial hardship.  Americans deserve better so I introduced H.R. 3475, the ‘Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011,’ a bill that would stop Social Security from making this information public.”

For the record, the National Conference of Insurance Legislators (“NCOIL”) President Senator Carroll Leavell (NM) and Past NCOIL Presidents U.S. Representatives Robert Damron (KY) and George Keiser (ND) submitted a letter to Chairman Johnson updating him on state insurance legislators’ DMF-related activity.  A copy of the letter is attached for review.

Along with the letter, NCOIL included its Model Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits Act, which relies on the DMF to help ensure that life insurance beneficiaries receive their promised benefits.  The NCOIL officials offered their assistance to Chairman Johnson to help ensure that insurance companies continue to have access to important data in the DMF, while helping to protect against fraud and identity theft–the goal of H.R. 3475, they reminded.



About the DMF

The SSA collects death information to administer its programs.  Approximately 2.5 million death reports are received each year from relatives, friends, funeral homes, financial institutions, postal authorities, States and Federal agencies.  Verified death information is then used to stop benefits to those who have died and provide benefits to surviving spouses and children. 

A 1980 Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) court-mandated settlement required the SSA to make publicly available the surname, Social Security Number (“SSN”) and date of death of deceased SSN holders.  As a result, the SSA created the DMF, a file of all deaths reported to the SSA since 1936 from sources other than States.  The public file includes 84 million records and approximately 1.5 million records are added each year.  At subscriber request, the file also includes date of birth and first and middle name for each SSN holder, in addition to the information required under the settlement. 

The SSA makes the DMF, often referred to as the Public DMF, available to the National Technical Information Service (“NTIS”) of the Department of Commerce through a contractual agreement.  There is a broad commercial interest in the DMF to prevent fraud, waste, abuse and identity theft.  NTIS sells the DMF to private and public sector customers, including government agencies, financial institutions, investigative entities, credit reporting organizations, medical researchers, genealogical researchers and other industries.  Workers’ compensation, pension, annuity, unemployment and other benefit plans use the DMF to detect improper payments sent to those who are deceased. 

In 1983, Congress amended the Social Security Act (P.L. 98-21) to require the SSA to enter into contractual agreements to obtain death records from States, established the conditions under which the SSA may provide State information to other Federal and State agencies and exempted death reports the SSA receives from the States from disclosure under FOIA. 

States play a key role in the death reporting process.  The SSA is working with States who are building a streamlined death registration process known as Electronic Death Registration (“EDR”). 

Certain death records that appeared to be coming from non-State independent sources but were in fact State EDR data were for years included in the DMF.  Following a recent review of the EDR, the SSA determined that as of November 1, 2011, all death records received through the EDR will be removed from the DMF. It is expected that as the use of the EDR expands through the States, the mandated FOIA settlement will apply to less death information and the number of records that may be entered on the DMF will be further reduced.   

As many news reports have accounted, incorrect death reports have created severe personal and financial hardship for those who are erroneously listed as deceased, including the termination of benefits and the public disclosure of information that the SSA normally keeps confidential.  According to the SSA, each year approximately 14,000 individuals are incorrectly listed as deceased on the DMF.  Those affected have experienced termination of benefits, rejected credit, declined mortgages and other devastating consequences while their personal and private information is publicly exposed. 

Further, the DMF reportedly has become a source for thieves to capitalize on the identities of children and others who have died.  Criminals appear to be exploiting the easy access to death information to submit fraudulent tax returns that include the decedent’s SSN.  Parents of the deceased child do not know their child’s identity has been stolen until the IRS rejects their legitimately filed return and the theft has been exposed.  

In fact, “The National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2011 Annual Report to Congress,” released on December 31, 2011, included a section entitled “The Federal Government Facilitates Tax-Related Identity Theft by Publicly Releasing Significant Personal Information of Deceased Individuals.”


Should you have any questions or comments, please contact Colodny Fass.