The US government declared her dead. 16 years later, she’s still trying to prove she’s alive

‘I don’t care what A.I. says or software says, but I’m alive,’ Madeline-Michelle Carthen said, ‘But it’s hard to prove that’

Kelly Rissman
Wednesday 27 September 2023 18:53 BST
Madeline-Michelle Carthen
Madeline-Michelle Carthen (KSDK / screengrab)

Madeline-Michelle Carthen was given a Social Security number associated with a deceased person in 2007 — and for the past 16 years, she has been trying to prove that she is very much alive.

The 52-year-old Missouri woman made the discovery as a student at Webster University, when she was denied financial aid, she told KSDK. She was put on the Death Master File, a Social Security Administration (SSA) list that tracks deaths of those with Social Security numbers, but doesn’t know how she was put on the list in the first place.

“Well, it got worse, because it wasn’t creditors. Being in the Death Master File, it went to the IRS, it went to the Department of Homeland Security, it went to E-verify, all of these things. It just started affecting my life,” she told NBC News.

“It’s like a haunting,” Ms Carthen told the outlet. This dead Social Security number has been affecting her throughout her adult life. She has since been prevented from graduating college, getting a mortgage, and even from keeping a job.

“It’s just a matter before my Social Security number catches up with me, and then they have to let me go … HR can’t process payroll,” Ms Carthen explained.

She told NBC News: “I just know I’m alive. I don’t care what AI says or software says, but I’m alive,” she said. “But it’s hard to prove that.”

Apparently, this sort of thing has happened before at the SSA. According to the agency’s website, “If you suspect that you have been incorrectly listed as deceased on your Social Security record, please visit your local Social Security office as soon as possible,” and asks people to bring a form of identification.

Once the record is corrected, the site said, the SSA will provide you an “Erroneous Death Case – Third Party Contact Notice,” which “you can give to banks, doctors or others to show that your death report was in error.”

Ms Carthen said she has tried this – as well as contacting four US presidents and other government officials for help – to no avail.

In 2019, she reportedly filed a federal lawsuit in 2019 against the SSA, the outlet wrote, but the case was dismissed because the government has sovereign immunity.

Finally, two years later, she thought she had made a breakthrough. The SSA issued Ms Carthen a new Social Security number. Also in 2021, she legally changed her name in an effort to separate herself from her dead Social Security number.

However, she is still not in the clear. Ms Carthen told the outlet that her new Social Security number is also flagged because it is connected to her old one.

“Here I am still stuck and nobody can help,” she said. “I just want answers.”

A SSA spokesperson told KSDK that its records are “highly accurate” and that of the 3 million death reports it receives each year, “less than one-third of 1% are subsequently corrected.”

But Ms Carthen said her struggle is ongoing: “I just want direct answers and haven’t been able to get that.”

The Independent has reached out to the SSA for comment.

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