Impact of State Death Information on Federal Income Security Programs

HRD-81-113: Published: Jul 28, 1981. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 1981.

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GAO completed a limited survey to determine whether deaths of Social Security Administration (SSA) title II beneficiaries were being reported to SSA so that benefits could be terminated or otherwise converted to surviving spouses. GAO was concerned about potential overpayments because reporting of deaths to SSA by survivors is voluntary and because there have been disclosures by the media and others that social security checks continued long after a beneficiary's death.

A statistical sampling of New York City death records which contained social security numbers did not identify any deceased individuals who were in a current pay status. A study of Kentucky records revealed nine deceased individuals who continued to appear in a current pay status. These cases were turned over to the GAO Fraud Prevention Task Force. SSA has reported that it was gradually expanding the use of State data for verification purposes, but that other priorities had kept it from establishing a comprehensive national interface program. GAO believes that SSA should obtain and use State data to verify program benefits and to periodically check on the voluntary reporting system by matching State death records against the master beneficiary record of SSA. This need will become even more critical if Congress enacts legislation to restrict payment of lump-sum death benefits. There is an incentive under present law to report the death of a social security beneficiary that will not exist under the proposed change. Without such an incentive, SSA will become more vulnerable to late or nonreporting of a beneficiary's death and the resulting continuation of inappropriate benefit payments. To protect against unreported deaths, SSA might work out an arrangement to obtain information from the National Center for Health Statistics which obtains death information nationally from every State. SSA should work with the Center and the States to have social security numbers included on pre-coded tapes and made available to SSA for periodic matching against SSA master beneficiary records.

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