SOUTH BEND — The estate of Patricia L. Peterson received a letter from AARP/Medicare Complete offering condolences at the notice of her death on Aug. 27, 2012.
Funny thing is, it was Patricia Peterson herself who opened the letter. She was alive and well Dec. 7 when she received notice of her own death.
Thinking it would be an easy mix-up to fix, Peterson contacted the office to get the problem corrected. They told her to go to the Social Security Administration. The SSA also had her deceased in its system, she told the South Bend Tribune.
The 69-year-old South Bend woman visited the SSA office that day with multiple forms of identification and proof of residence. Employees copied her driver's license and told her they would work to correct the problem, she said.
Later the same day she received a call stating the SSA was having a problem fixing the problem, but they would keep working on it.
But it would be more than a month later -- during which she had a brief scare over reduced monthly benefits and substantial overdraft fines -- before Peterson received official notice she's alive.
"It's like they're messing it up more and more," Peterson said before the problems were resolved.
She's certainly not the first to encounter such a problem. According to an August 2011 report by CNN, some 14,000 individuals are wrongly declared dead every year in the Social Security Administration's Death Master File, the database containing information on all of the death notices the administration has received.
Peterson said Social Security had issued her benefits check in December, despite her being "dead." In fact, she checked with the administration of her apartment building to make sure they were receiving money in her name.
"If I'm dead, why am I getting a check?" Peterson asked. "This is the first time I've ever had any trouble."
It wasn't until a Tribune reporter began making calls on her behalf that the story became clear: Simple human error caused a big headache for Peterson.
David Seymour, public affairs specialist for the Social Security Administration in northeast Indiana, said it was a mistyped Social Security number entered Nov. 26 that declared Peterson dead.
Seymour added that people are generally declared dead through a funeral home, which can file either actual paperwork or a digital version with the administration.
The administration does also take phone calls to report deaths, but deaths are then confirmed via a death certificate, according to Seymour.
Seymour said the administration generally works quickly after a death notification, either suspending or terminating benefits. When it comes to a wrongful death notification, Seymour said it becomes "top priority" to correct the situation.
"If that would happen, we would work immediately to correct the situation," he said. "We would normally ask for an office visit and some form of photo identification, like a driver's license."
The Social Security Administration then creates a report within the agency detailing how it happened and how it was handled, Seymour said.
"Unless there are extraneous circumstances, we work to resolve those cases immediately," Seymour said.
Seymour said Peterson's problem was corrected the day she came into the office.
Maybe so, but Peterson said there were still multiple trips to the SSA office as well as a Medicaid office visit and a phone call to Medicare in attempts to clear up the matter.
She said she then received two letters Dec. 17 from Social Security -- one stating the agency was going to increase her monthly benefits by about $10 because of increased cost of living, the other one stating it was going to give her two months of payments of about $187 because of overpayment -- a substantially lower amount than what she receives.
"I cannot live on $187 a month," Peterson said before the problem was corrected. "It's like they don't care."
Her reduction in benefits was unrelated but unfortunately timed, Seymour said. It was a problem stemming from her insurance and assistance from the state, and has now been corrected, he said.
"It's very routine, that happens," Seymour said of the benefit reduction. "It didn't have anything to do with her being listed as deceased."
It was in early January that Peterson contacted the Tribune and the local office of U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, for help.
The reduced monthly check caused headaches for Peterson and her bank, she said, because of overdraft fees and other penalties she incurred.
However, Peterson said that this past week the Social Security Administration indicated it was going to work with her to get her bank and other bills to waive the late fees. Her payments were also fully reinstated.
While everything was still in limbo, Peterson was "in a daze." She said she doesn't have family members to turn to for financial help, although her twin sister offered support.
Friends and family were just as alarmed as she was, she said.
"They could not believe it was happening," Peterson said. "Though, some people at (her housing complex) thought it was a joke. They would ask me if I was alive yet, or if I was still dead. It wears and tears on you."
According to a July 2012 news release from the Social Security Administration, some 58 million Americans received $778 billion in Social Security benefits.
For many of the elderly recipients, Social Security is a major source of income. Nine out of 10 Americans age 65 or older receive Social Security, and about 46 percent of elderly, unmarried recipients count Social Security as 90 percent or more of their income, according to the SSA.
The average monthly benefit in November 2012 was $1,132.86, according to the SSA website. As of December 2011, 64,540 South Bend residents received some form of Social Security, including retired workers, disabled workers, widow(er)s, parents, spouses and children.
This past week Peterson received phone calls from Walorski's office informing her that everything was cleared up with all of the offices and administrations they called. Peterson is listed as alive.
Peterson said Friday that she was relieved the problem appears to be corrected -- but she's still apprehensive.
"I'm relieved now, but I'm still worried about next month," Peterson said. "I get that feeling because I've been fighting this for so long.
"I'm thankful for all of the help I received. If I would have kept trying to do this all myself, I don't think it would have gone anywhere."