During COVID-19, federal stimulus payments have been sent to taxpayers that have died and this is drawing attention to shortcomings in the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s Death Master File (DMF). Forbes estimates that “tens of thousands of deceased taxpayers received stimulus checks” due to inaccuracies in the Social Security Administration’s Master Death File.
Specifically, the Death Master File (DMF) is a central record of deaths across the US, compiled by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and distributed via the National Technical Information Service (NTIS). The DMF is also sometimes known as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The DMF is often used by leading financial and credit firms, as well as government agencies and researchers to match records, verify death and prevent identity fraud.
Many government agencies rely on the DMF database, however only a small number of federal agencies have access to the full official list. Instead, the SSA says it does not have “statutory authority” and provides excluded agencies with an abbreviated list.
Importantly, a bipartisan group of lawmakers during the week of May 11, is now asking what access these agencies have to SSA’s Death Master File before sending out payments. The lawmaker group is now directing their questions the Treasury Department, IRS and the Social Security Administration. One question the group has posed to the SSA is “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? It is assumed by multiple media outlets, including Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, that a version of the DMF is being used as the IRS has previously the DMF to help determine who not to send stimulus checks to. Forbes reports that “the abbreviated version of the DMF is only 60 percent complete”. ,
A similar instance concerning inaccuracies in the DMF happened in 2011 and continues to have ramifications today. The federal government applied a drastic change to the way that it processes information on reported deaths to compile the public Social Security Number (SSN) Death Master File. The Social Security Administration had taken much of its information about deaths from State records and had used those records to compile the comprehensive list of deaths. However, in November 2011 the SSA reviewed its obligations towards certain State records and announced that it was a statutory requirement to keep that information confidential to the State departments. Although the SSA can still access State death records, it can only use that information to corroborate and correct its existing death records rather than as the primary source of data.
The change was unexpected and did not receive much publicity. As a result, many people who regularly consult the Public Death Master File or rely on information from agencies who use the DMF may still be unaware of the implications of this change. As well as changing the way that the SSA continues to gather data about deaths, the statutory requirements also led the SSA to remove about 4.2 million existing death records because they were based on information from proscribed State records. The DMF numbers around 83 million records of deaths 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 already know about the effects of removing 4.2 million deaths en masse, many members of the public are not aware of the limited access to the death master file. Agencies such as Streamline Verify can only share information that they get from the Death Master file. When clients turn to us to check on death status, they may be confused when they discover that the death they are inquiring about is no longer showing up. The reason for this occurrence is solely due to the change in the DMF database; as we cannot share death records that the DMF has removed.
The SSA continues to add to the DMF and it is still provided to agencies and professionals under the Freedom of Information Act, however now it is based on deaths reported by funeral homes, hospitals, family members, postal authorities, or federal agencies and financial institutions. In 2010, the SSA shared around 2.8 million deaths on the DMF database, including updates and changes, but after this change to accessing State information it will probably only share around 1.8 million. This means that from 2011 onwards, more deaths that are included in State records will not show up on the Death Master File free search. Research published by the Social Security Administration in 2002 suggests that the total number of deaths, at any age, reported to the Death Master File suggests that “for most years since 1973, 93 percent to 96 percent of deaths of individuals aged 65 or older were included in the DMF.”
Specific to the recent 2020 coronavirus stimulus payments to deceased recipients, the IRA 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. Married couples who received two payments should return the portion that applies to the deceased spouse.
Despite its history, the Death Master File remains the most accurate and reliable way to screen for death records – even with the reduced number or reports. Streamline Verify continues to provide all legally available death records that are presented through the National Technical Information Service Death Master File with the highest possible degree of accuracy.
 Guina, Ryan,The IRS Wants Its Money Back – Stimulus Checks Made to Dead Taxpayers Must Be Returned, Forbes, May 6, 2020.
 Davidson, K and Rubin, R, Stimulus Checks Sent to Dead Relatives Should Be Returned, Mnuchin Says, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2020.
 Mark E. Hill and Ira Rosenwaike, “The Social Security Administration’s Death Master File: The Completeness of Death Reporting at Older Ages“, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 64, No. 1, 2001/2002.