The first COVID-related federal stimulus payments were sent in the spring of 2020. Unfortunately, payments were sent to millions of taxpayers who were deceased at the time of payment.
Not only did this draw attention to the process and data used to identify CARES Act stimulus recipients, it renewed attention on the shortcomings of the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s Death Master File (DMF). With the recent stimulus checks being sent to millions and the potential for more disbursements in 2021, accuracy of the data used to distribute these funds is critical.
In June of 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report which included data on the economic impact payments made under the CARES Act and reviewed the implementation of the stimulus roll out. The report revealed that while the IRS routinely uses the full DMF to detect and prevent fraudulent tax refund claims, for the stimulus roll-out these records were not used to stop stimulus payments to deceased individuals by the Treasury and its Bureau of Fiscal Services (BFS). Why?
> First, because IRS legal counsel advised that the IRS did not have the legal authority to deny payments to those who filed a return in 2018 and 2019 even if they were deceased at the time of payment. Therefore, the DMF was not used to stop payments to decedents for the first 3 of the 4 payment batches (72 percent of the payments disbursed). As a result, according to the June 30, 2020 audit report issued by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, 1.151 million payments totaling $1.6 billion went to decedents.
> Second, the GAO report also noted that while the IRS has full access to the DMF maintained by the SSA, Treasury and its Bureau of Fiscal Service (BFS) do not. They only have access to an abbreviated version. Forbes reports that “the abbreviated version of the DMF is only 60 percent complete”. After the legal interpretation about screening against the DMF was revised, the IRS provided the BFS with temporary access to the full DMF to screen out decedents for future payments.
Congressional Inquiry into Use of the DMF
As a result of the erroneous payments to decedents last spring, a bipartisan group of lawmakers asked what access additional agencies have to Death Master File SSA before sending out stimulus payments. The lawmaker group directed their questions the Treasury Department, IRS and the SSA. One question the group posed to the SSA was “Do Treasury and IRS utilize the (a) Death Master File, (b) Full Death File, or (c) any other death database(s) to preview eligibility before sending out the CARES Act economic impact payments? The June 2020 GAO report provides the answer and proposed that Congress act to explicitly amend the Social Security Act to allow the Treasury Department access to the full DMF moving forward in order to prevent future payments to decedents and ineligible individuals.
What is the Death Master File?
The Death Master File (DMF) is a central data repository reflecting deaths across the US. It is compiled by the SSA and distributed via the National Technical Information Service (NTIS). The DMF is also sometimes called the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The DMF contains the name, social security number, date of birth, and date of death of deceased individuals dating back to 1936. The publicly available DMF is not a complete file of all deaths, and does not include state death records. In addition, SSA cannot guarantee the accuracy of the DMF. However, it remains the best source of nationwide death data and is a valuable data source for preventing fraud and abuse.
Access to the Death Master File SSA is used by:
> medical researchers, hospitals and medical treatment facilities to track former patients and study subjects, and to obtain death verification;
> insurance companies to verify eligibility of benefits, and
> financial institutions, insurance companies and third-party screening services such as Streamline Verify.
As noted in a recent article, the NTIS in 2014 effectively limited the access to the DMF to companies who are able to demonstrate sufficient infrastructure to protect the security of their data, including security systems, facilities and procedures, and who receive documentation from an “Accredited Conformity Assessment Body” attesting to these safety measures. Organizations must also be able to demonstrate a legitimate purpose pursuant to a law, government ruling, regulation or fiduciary duty.
Notwithstanding its significant limitations, the public DMF remains the best source of nationwide death data and is still a valuable data source for preventing fraud and abuse. It is used by leading financial and credit firms, as well as government agencies and researchers to match records, verify death and prevent identity theft and related fraud and abuse. Many government agencies also rely on the DMF, however only a small number of federal agencies have access to the full official list because the Social Security Act requires SSA to enter into cooperative agreements to share state data with federal benefit-paying agencies. Consequently, the SSA can provide excluded agencies, including the Treasury Department, with only abbreviated data absent Congress amending the SSA to allow expanded access to the full DMF.
A History of Changes to the DMF
A significant change to the DMF occurred in 2011 which continues to have ramifications today. Back then, the federal government applied a drastic change to the way that it processed data on reported deaths in order to compile the public Death Master File. In November 2011 the SSA reviewed its obligations towards certain state records and announced that it had a statutory obligation to keep that information derived from state records confidential.
The reason that there are two is largely due to death data ownership. States have long held (and Congress concurs) that states own the vital records of people who die within their boundaries. The sale of those records to the federal government is a source of revenue for states. However, the SSA interprets Section 205(r) of the Social Security Act as barring it from sharing the costs it pays for state data with other federal partners and the same law prohibits SSA from sharing state data with the private sector and most non-benefit-paying federal agencies.
The change was unexpected and did not receive much publicity. It effectively resulted in the development of two versions of the DMF – the publicly available version and the complete version. The complete DMF includes all death data that SSA receives, including state-owned vital statistics data and death reports from a decedent’s family members. funeral homes, hospitals, federal agencies, postal authorities and financial institutions. Access is limited to a very small number of federal agencies. The public DMF does not include death data received from states, but includes all other reports of deaths and is available to certified organizations which can protect the data.
In addition to changing the way that the SSA makes death data available , the statutory requirements led the SSA to remove about 4.2 million existing death records because they were based on information from proscribed state records. The public DMF contains data on approximately 83 million people who have died since 1936. Although the SSA has always warned that the DMF is not a complete file of every death in the country, the removal of 4.2 million left a noticeable gap.
While some professionals know about the effects of removing 4.2 million deaths en masse from the DMF, many members of the public are not aware of these changes. Therefore, when clients turn to us to check on death status, they may be confused when a death they are inquiring about is no longer captured in the DMF. Services such as Streamline Verify can only share information included in the public Death Master File – if a file has been removed by the SSA, it will no longer be captured in any search.
Specific to the 2020 coronavirus stimulus payments to deceased recipients, the IRS is now saying
that the money needs to be returned. If the checks were sent by mail, they should be voided and mailed
back to the IRS. If the payments were made via direct deposit, the taxpayer should write a check to the
government and mail it in. Widows/Widowers who received joint payments have been advised to return the portion that applies to the deceased spouse. However, as noted in the June 2020 GAO Report, the IRS does not have a plan to take additional steps to notify ineligible recipients on how to return payments.
Despite its complex history and the challenges to its data sources, the public Death Master File remains the most accurate and reliable way to screen for death records – even with the reduced number of deaths reported. As state data expand as a share of SSA’s death data, the public file will include progressively fewer new death reports and become less useful as an anti-fraud or identity authentication tool or for the tracking of research subjects. Streamline Verify works to provide all legally available death records presented through the National Technical Information Service Death Master File with the highest possible degree of accuracy.