Declared dead: How man ended up wrongly listed as dead in federal database


Bill Holeman’s roots are firmly planted in Caney, Kansas. Generations of his family have grown up on the corner lot on the edge of town. Life in Caney is simple, really nothing unusual to see here -- unless you’re looking at Holeman.

“I’ve never interviewed a dead man before,” I told him.

“You probably won’t interview many more,” said Holeman.

You see, according to the federal government, Holeman is dead.

“Have you gone through any walls lately?” I asked jokingly.

“No, I keep getting bruises when I try,” said Holeman.

Holeman’s status as a living person changed not long after he tried to use his credit card and it was declined.

His wife called the credit card company and was surprised at the reason why.

“The lady said, I’m so sorry to hear about your husband. She said, what about him? She says, we were told he died. She says, he’s sitting here, do you want to talk to him,” he recalled.

If the phone call wasn’t enough to tip off Bill that something was up, his life insurance company sent a letter saying he’s dead and his wife needs to collect his insurance.

“It doesn’t make sense, does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?” said Holeman.

This letter from the Social Security Administration spelled out everything. Holeman was listed as dead in a federal database. He said the mix-up started after a funeral home in a different state plugged in the wrong social security number for the person it was burying.

“Computers are like power tools, they don’t keep you from making misstakes. You just make mistakes faster,” said Holeman.

He is not alone. Authorities admit around 7,000 living people are wrongly listed as dead each year. Officials with the Social Security Administration said that's less than one percent of deaths each year, but they know it can be a hassle.

"Nobody is immune, nobody can hide from it. If somebody types the wrong number in, your life is in turmoil,” said Holeman.

Imagine the headache of proving to the world that you’re alive. There are plenty of issues that can arise, like bank accounts being frozen, credit cards declined, social security checks stopping, mortgage issues can arise and insurance policies can be canceled.

In Holeman’s case, his social security checks stopped. The irony isn’t lost on Holeman. He’s a cancer survivor.

“Seven years ago, I survived cancer just to be killed by a clerical error,” said Holeman.

Holeman was able to sort out everything within a few months. Fortunately, his wife was listed on his bank account, so they were still able to access their money and cards. But Holeman knows that’s not always the case for a lot of people.

He said he took extra steps following the debacle just in case it happens again. He’s been monitoring any credit cards and watching out for identity theft. He even got a concealed carry permit so his fingerprints are entered in a federal database.

The SSA has steps that you should take if you're wrongly listed as deceased. The first thing you'll need to do is visit the closest Social Security office and make sure to bring extra identification. For more information, click here.

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