‘Get your act together’: Ravenel woman fights back after feds declare her dead

A grandmother in Ravenel said she has been fighting the Social Security Administration since they erroneously declared her dead.
Published: Apr. 24, 2023 at 5:00 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 24, 2023 at 7:29 PM EDT
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RAVENEL, S.C. (WCSC) - A grandmother in Ravenel said she has been fighting the Social Security Administration since they erroneously declared her dead.

Marie Harris saw a Live 5 News investigation in March about a West Ashley man, Shane Melton, whom the agency wrongly declared dead.

“I go to the DMV one day and boom, I’m dead,” Melton said.

Melton detailed his struggle of trying to prove he was alive to Social Security. His driver’s license had expired, so he was unable to access any of the documents or forms he needed for Social Security to determine he was, in fact, alive. He had been laid off but couldn’t get rehired, and he couldn’t even go to his children’s school.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

Less than 15 hours after the story about Melton’s fight aired, the Social Security Administration sent an email saying they wanted to fix the issue. Days later, Melton was once again alive in the eyes of the government. He got a new job, and all was well.

Harris said a similar thing happened to her but it has not yet been resolved.

“I found this out Dec. 19 that I was deceased, and it’s been a battle ever since,” she said.

She found out when her debit card was rejected.

“Oh my gosh. This is unbelievable,” she said. “The lady at the bank could not believe it either. She says, ‘How could they do this?’ I said, ‘That’s my question. How can they do this?’”

Getting declared dead doesn’t just mean a debit card issue. Experts say your credit score goes to zero, you can’t apply for a loan or get a new job, car or house. For Harris, it also means her Social Security checks stopped.

“I’m one of those people that I depend on my Social Security check,” she said. “It’s my income. If it wasn’t for my children, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Harris says she’s gone to multiple Social Security locations multiple times. She’s called and talked to multiple people. She says it’s been stressful and aggravating and emotional.

“My children even got letters of condolences. Can you believe that?” she said. “Being alive and being declared dead is no fun. I’d rather be dead and not know what’s going on, I guess.”

In response to a request for an interview, the Social Security Administration sent the same it has sent to dozens of other news outlets—one that’s included in almost every story about someone wrongly declared dead:

We are unable to discuss individual cases due to privacy laws. However, we can share that approximately 3 million deaths are reported to the Social Security Administration each calendar 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 other sources, including family members, representative payees, funeral homes, other Federal agencies, 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 https://www.ssa.gov/agency/contact/. They should be prepared to bring at least one piece of current (not expired) original form of identification. 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.

But after a subsequent request for an interview about the impact of wrongly declaring people dead and what needs to be done on a systemic level to correct the problem as well as people who have reached out after having trouble getting the error who now say it is not as simple as Social Security’s statement makes it out to be, the agency did not respond.

READ MORE: ‘I go to the DMV one day and boom’: West Ashley man mistakenly declared dead

Attorney Joseph McClelland, who specializes in bringing people back to life on paper, says he has helped hundreds.

“We know from the Social Security Administration, their own data, that somewhere between 6,000 to 11,000 errors occur every year,” he says. “But that’s actually just a small part. The credit bureaus also make their own mistakes. But more than those two, lenders make the most mistakes.”

McClelland says getting the government to agree you’re alive is actually the easy part. Dealing with lenders and credit bureaus after the fact is the bigger challenge.

“They’re going to be very difficult to move off their position because in their minds, they got something off the government. It can’t be wrong and it will never change,” McClelland said. “Unfortunately when something does change in the Social Security Administration, these lenders and credit bureaus rarely get that information and when they do, they want to question it.”

Despite the struggle of being wrongly declared dead and the list of inconveniences and serious consequences, there is no action you can take against Social Security, he says. You can, however, take legal action against lenders and credit bureaus if it comes to that point.

“[Social Security is] pre-empted, so you can’t sue the government,” he said. “Once the Social Security Administration makes the mistake, that information goes to the furnishers or lenders and the credit bureaus. If they’re not doing a good job of making sure they have accurate information, then they are liable under the Fair Credit Act, and that’s substantial damages.”

When it comes to a way to prevent being wrongly declared dead, whether by Social Security, lenders or credit bureaus, there is nothing you can do to stop this from happening to you, McClelland says.

“Prevent it? No,” he says. “You can be diligent and look at your credit report several times a year, but past that, this is something that happens in the background.”

Meanwhile, Harris says Social Security insists her problem should soon be fixed, and she was told by the end of the month she’ll be alive and well again with her Social Security checks arriving in full and on time.

“We shall see,” she said. In the meantime, Harris has one message for Social Security: “Get your act together.”