Being Dead Can Be a Real Drag, Especially If You’re Alive

Just ask Doris Temple, 85, a Navy veteran who learned in January that the government had declared her deceased. Strongly suspecting an error, she protested, but not before she lost her health insurance and thousands of dollars in income – Social Security benefits as well as private insurance and pension payments.

All the while, she got letters addressed to “the estate of Doris Temple,” some of which included condolences. And when she tried to rent a Walnut Creek apartment last month, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wouldn’t hook up her utilities because, as a corpse, she had a lousy credit score.

By Thursday, after weeks of work by her and her son, much of the damage from the mistake – which the Social Security Administration eventually fixed – had been reversed. But Temple remained wary.

“It’s been one kick in the pants after another,” she said at the Ignacio Valley Care Center in Walnut Creek, where she is recovering from a flare-up of a lung condition.

Rebirth is hard work

As it turns out, not dying requires a lot of energy. Word of her passing, Temple said, seemed to spread quicker than news of her subsequent rebirth – particularly among those who owed her money.

“It’s hard to bring someone back from the dead,” said her son, Robert Temple of Walnut Creek.

Doris Temple figures the error was related to the death of her husband of 63 years, Charles Temple, who did not emerge from heart surgery Dec. 15 at a hospital near the couple’s former home in Vista (San Diego County). That’s the day the Social Security Administration had her dying.

The couple was close, but not that close. They met during World War II on the streets of New York City. He was a naval officer, she one of that era’s WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. They raised two boys and traveled the world.

Doris Temple moved to Walnut Creek in early January to be near her surviving son. But the mistake, she said, made it difficult for her to fully grieve for her husband.

‘Resurrection’ totals

In a June 2008 report, the Social Security Administration’s inspector general called cases like Temple’s “resurrections” and said the agency could do more to help the victims, given their “serious hardships.” The report said Social Security officials had deleted 46,035 death entries from their files from January 2004 to April 2007.

Lowell Kepke, a Bay Area spokesman for Social Security, said the agency receives death reports from many sources, including funeral directors and relatives. Married couples, he said, often receive benefits under the same accounts, opening up the potential for a blunder.

Regardless of whether the mistake originated with the government, Kepke said, his agency takes the lead in helping the victim.

“When these errors happen, we put our energy into helping the individual fix everything,” Kepke said. “We know how inconvenient it can be. And it’s embarrassing.”

Living proof

It was Robert Temple who first learned his mother was declared dead, after receiving a letter from her health insurer. Soon after, on Jan. 28, he accompanied a Social Security official to see his mom at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.

Her status as a living and breathing person was confirmed that day, and then memorialized in an official Feb. 26 letter from Social Security. But in many ways, the bucket had already been kicked.

Doris Temple said she lost her husband’s pension from IBM, which is managed by Fidelity Investments, and her long-term care insurance from Senior Health Insurance Co. of Pennsylvania.

Robert Temple has since persuaded the companies to restore benefits, some of which won’t resume until next month. Retroactive pay will be included, he said.

But one more problem popped up: When the government corrected its records, it listed his mother’s birth date as Dec. 15, 2009.

“She’s now an infant,” he said. “She has 60-plus years left to re-qualify for Social Security.”

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