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Social Security Administration revises Death Master File policies

Although this is primarily a blog about Social Security Disability and issues that affect current or potential SSD benefits in California and throughout the country, occasionally the Social Security Administration will institute a change or new policy of which we think our readers should be aware. The recent changes to the Social Security Administration's policies regarding its Death Master File are such an exception.

The Death Master File is, essentially, exactly what it sounds like: a master list of people who have passed away in the United States. Currently, the SSA estimates that about 95 percent of Americans who have died in the last 75 years are included in the Death Master File, which lists the deceased's dates of birth and death, Social Security number, and other identifying other information such as ZIP code.

Since the Death Master File came into existence in 1980, it has been available to state governments and the public. In addition, it was intended to be used by insurance companies, who would use the list to find out if a life insurance policyholder had died and, if so, initiate payment to beneficiaries.

In 2011, this use of the Death Master File garnered additional attention when state insurance commissioners learned that life insurers had not been checking the file, thereby forcing beneficiaries to start the claims process. As a result, insurance companies once again began instituting checks of the file and paying beneficiaries.

However, under a new SSA rule, that may no longer be possible. Now, a large percentage of its death records will no longer be made available to the public, once again making the task of collecting life insurance more burdensome for beneficiaries.

The SSA has offered no real justification for this change, only stating that it recently discovered that it is "prohibited from disclosing death records it receives through contacts with the states." But since they have been doing exactly that for more than 30 years, their sudden realization that they were breaking the law is questionable, at best.

Source: MSN Money, "How insurers use the 'Death Master'," Ed Leefeldt, Feb. 3, 2012

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