HEARING ADVISORY: Chairman Johnson Announces a Hearing on Social Security’s Death Records

February 2, 2012 — Hearing Advisory   

U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security announced today that the Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the accuracy and uses of the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File.  The hearing will take place on Thursday, February 2, 2012 in B-318 Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 9:00 a.m.

In view of the limited time available to hear witnesses, oral testimony at this hearing will be from invited witnesses only.  However, any individual or organization not scheduled for an oral appearance may submit a written statement for consideration by the Subcommittee and for inclusion in the printed record of the hearing.


The Social Security Administration (SSA) collects death information to administer its programs.  Approximately 2.5 million death reports are received each year from relatives, friends, funeral homes, financial institutions, postal authorities, States and Federal agencies.  Verified death information is then used to stop benefits to those who have died and provide benefits to surviving spouses and children. 

A 1980 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) court-mandated settlement required the SSA to make publicly available the surname, Social Security Number (SSN) and date of death of deceased SSN holders.  As a result, the SSA created the Death Master File (DMF), a file of all deaths reported to the SSA since 1936 from sources other than States.  The public file includes 84 million records and approximately 1.5 million records are added each year.  At subscriber request, the file also includes date of birth and first and middle name for each SSN holder, in addition to the information required under the settlement. 

The SSA makes the DMF, often referred to as the Public DMF, available to the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) of the Department of Commerce through a contractual agreement.  There is a broad commercial interest in the DMF to prevent fraud, waste, abuse and identity theft.  NTIS sells the DMF to private and public sector customers, including government agencies, financial institutions, investigative entities, credit reporting organizations, medical researchers, genealogical researchers and other industries.  Workers’ compensation, pension, annuity, unemployment and other benefit plans use the DMF to detect improper payments sent to those who are deceased. 

In 1983, Congress amended the Social Security Act (P.L. 98-21) to require the SSA to enter into contractual agreements to obtain death records from States, established the conditions under which the SSA may provide State information to other Federal and State agencies and exempted death reports the SSA receives from the States from disclosure under FOIA. 

States play a key role in the death reporting process.  The SSA is working with States who are building a streamlined death registration process known as Electronic Death Registration (EDR). 

Certain death records that appeared to be coming from non-State independent sources but were in fact State EDR data were for years included in the DMF.  Following a recent review of the EDR, the SSA determined that as of November 1, 2011, all death records received through the EDR will be removed from the DMF. It is expected that as the use of the EDR expands through the States, the mandated FOIA settlement will apply to less death information and the number of records that may be entered on the DMF will be further reduced.   

As many news reports have accounted, incorrect death reports have created severe personal and financial hardship for those who are erroneously listed as deceased, including the termination of benefits and the public disclosure of information that the SSA normally keeps confidential.  According to the SSA, each year approximately 14,000 individuals are incorrectly listed as deceased on the DMF.  Those affected have experienced termination of benefits, rejected credit, declined mortgages and other devastating consequences while their personal and private information is publicly exposed. 

Further, the DMF reportedly has become a source for thieves to capitalize on the identities of children and others who have died.  Criminals appear to be exploiting the easy access to death information to submit fraudulent tax returns that include the decedent’s SSN.  Parents of the deceased child do not know their child’s identity has been stolen until the IRS rejects their legitimately filed return and the theft has been exposed.  In fact, “The National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2011 Annual Report to Congress,” released on December 31, 2011, included a section entitled “The Federal Government Facilitates Tax-Related Identity Theft by Publicly Releasing Significant Personal Information of Deceased Individuals.”

In announcing the hearing, Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) stated, “Since 1980, Social Security has been required to publicly make available Americans’ personal information through the so-called Death Master File.  Nearly anyone can get this information, including identity thieves. Identity theft affects swindled businesses, American taxpayers and grieving families.  Also any one of us could find ourselves on that list by mistake – a mistake which could cause severe financial hardship.  Americans deserve better so I introduced H.R. 3475, the ‘Keeping IDs Safe Act of 2011,’ a bill that would stop Social Security from making this information public.”


The hearing will focus on the history, accuracy, use and impacts of the Death Master File along with options for change.    


Please Note: Any person(s) and/or organization(s) wishing to submit for the hearing record must follow the appropriate link on the hearing page of the Committee website and complete the informational forms. From the Committee homepage, https://waysandmeans.house.gov, select “Hearings.”  Select the hearing for which you would like to submit, and click on the link entitled, “Click here to provide a submission for the record.”  Once you have followed the online instructions, submit all requested information. ATTACH your submission as a Word or WordPerfect document, in compliance with the formatting requirements listed below, by the close of business on Tuesday, February 16, 2012.  Finally, please note that due to the change in House mail policy, the U.S. Capitol Police will refuse sealed-package deliveries to all House Office Buildings. For questions, or if you encounter technical problems, please call (202) 225-1721 or (202) 225-3625.


The Committee relies on electronic submissions for printing the official hearing record.  As always, submissions will be included in the record according to the discretion of the Committee.  The Committee will not alter the content of your submission, but we reserve the right to format it according to our guidelines.  Any submission provided to the Committee by a witness, any supplementary materials submitted for the printed record, and any written comments in response to a request for written comments must conform to the guidelines listed below.  Any submission or supplementary item not in compliance with these guidelines will not be printed, but will be maintained in the Committee files for review and use by the Committee.

1.     All submissions and supplementary materials must be provided in Word or WordPerfect format and MUST NOT exceed a total of 10 pages, including attachments. Witnesses and submitters are advised that the Committee relies on electronic submissions for printing the official hearing record.

2.     Copies of whole documents submitted as exhibit material will not be accepted for printing. Instead, exhibit material should be referenced and quoted or paraphrased.  All exhibit material not meeting these specifications will be maintained in the Committee files for review and use by the Committee.

3.     All submissions must include a list of all clients, persons and/or organizations on whose behalf the witness appears.  A supplemental sheet must accompany each submission listing the name, company, address, telephone, and fax numbers of each witness.

The Committee seeks to make its facilities accessible to persons with disabilities.  If you are in need of special accommodations, please call 202-225-1721 or 202-226-3411 TTD/TTY in advance of the event (four business days notice is requested).  Questions with regard to special accommodation needs in general (including availability of Committee materials in alternative formats) may be directed to the Committee as noted above.

Note: All Committee advisories and news releases are available on the World Wide Web at http://www.waysandmeans.house.gov/

SUBCOMMITTEE: Social Security