Say What Now? Woman Wrongly Declared Dead for Over 15 Years Is Still Fighting to Prove Her Existence |

Say What Now? Woman Wrongly Declared Dead for Over 15 Years Is Still Fighting to Prove Her Existence

A Missouri woman is fighting for her life — both in reality and on paper — after she was wrongfully declared dead more than 15 years ago.

via People:

When she was in college, Madeline-Michelle: Carthen had been anticipating taking part in Webster University’s international intern exchange program in the summer of 2007. But she was never able to attend — or even graduate — after she was denied financial aid when her Social Security number suddenly listed her as deceased.

Carthen says the issue actually began in November 2006, but she “didn’t become aware” until the school let her know four months later. The unforeseen mishap has now stalled the rest of her life.

Carthen says CNN “got involved” after her story first gained media attention in 2007. With their help, she learned from the Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C., that her records were in a “deceased warehouse.”

Unknowingly, her name was added to the Death Master File, an internal database that collects records of dead people who have Social Security numbers.

Once someone is added to the DMF, the IRS, banks and Medicare cancel their existence, per NBC affiliate KSDK-TV. Their investigation found that up to 12,000 Americans are wrongfully marked as dead by the government each year.

SSA spokesperson Darren Lutz told PEOPLE in a statement that while they “are unable to discuss individual cases due to privacy laws,” they have contacted Carthen “directly to assist with her case.”

The spokesperson added that nearly 3 million deaths are reported to the SSA each year and that their records are “highly accurate.” He noted that of the “millions of death reports we receive each year, less than one-third of 1 percent are subsequently corrected.”

SSA Regional Communications Director John Powell did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment. Webster University declined to comment, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

According to the SSA, a person incorrectly listed as deceased is supposed to bring another form of identification to their local SSA office, and once certified, the agency will offer a death erroneous letter to show banks, doctors and others that it was a mistake.

Carthen has fought tirelessly to prove she’s alive, but says the error has never been resolved — and that she’s received six erroneous death letters in 16 years.

Over the years, she has contacted four U.S. presidents — only getting a response from former President Donald Trump — and other government officials. She filed a lawsuit in 2019, but it was dismissed after the government said it had sovereign immunity. The 52-year-old — who has been unable to vote or maintain a steady job for an extended period of time — then changed her name in 2021 and received a new Social Security number, but despite each step, she’s faced setbacks.

“I’m in Missouri, but I’m back and forth [between here and Tennessee],” she tells PEOPLE. “I had to give up my home. I don’t have a place to stay. I can’t get a mortgage.”

In addition to the fact that her court-ordered new name is misspelled in some government databases, the wrong Social Security number is even listed on her E-Verify, which is what employers use to confirm employees eligibility to work.

“I can get a job but I can’t keep a job,” she says.

Her 29-year-old son, Kenneth, has also been impacted. Carthen says he’s been having issues going back to college since she can’t sign his Federal Student Aid application because she doesn’t have a valid Social Security number.

But she remains hopeful that whenever her case gets “cleared up,” she can finally obtain “adequate employment.”

And though Carthen has medical problems, one fortunate aspect of her nearly 20-year ordeal is that she’s been able to receive disability benefits, much to her surprise.

“I’m dealing with aortic valve regurgitation and atrial fibrillation. I’m in stage three kidney renal failure,” she says. “How is it that I can go through these things and they classify me as dead and I’m not, but I’m on disability?”

“Everything has been stripped from me,” she says. “I’m blocked.”

Hopefully she’s able to get that worked out. It sounds like a complete nightmare.

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