Desert Companion

Not Dead Yet


Tammy Thompson Vanderheiden is very much alive.
Portrait by Lucky Wenzel

Tammy Thompson Vanderheiden is very much alive.

A case study in the difficulties of being declared dead when, in fact, you’re not

In January, Tammy Thompson VanderHeiden learned she was dead. Or, at least, various agencies and businesses — the Social Security Administration, her bank, her insurance company, even her pharmacy — thought she was. What sounds like the premise for a zany sitcom episode was, in fact, kind of a nightmare for the 55-year-old Las Vegan — one that happens to some 6,000 people a year, according to a 2017 SSA report. Here, in her words (edited for length and clarity), is what it was like.


What a mess. Oh, my goodness. And every day it’s something new. It’s crazy.

Last Friday, I went to check my account balance (by phone). Usually it just tells you your balance, but this time it sent me to an operator, and I asked her, Why am I being sent to you? And she says, Well, we’ve got notification from Social Security that you are deceased. She told me that had put a freeze on my account.

So I called Social Security. I was on hold with them for an hour and a half for her to tell me, Yes, in fact, we do have you down as being deceased; you’re going to have come into the office. I immediately went down and waited three hours to be seen. And then, once I’m seen, she was like, Well, it can just be human error. We don’t know for sure. I said, Well, I want to know how somebody can be reported deceased. This doesn’t make sense to me. You need a death certificate, you need fingerprints — you need something to be sure that that person is deceased. And she said, well, yours says “confirmed.” And I said, Who is it confirmed through? She’s like, I don’t know for sure. Usually it would be the coroner’s office.

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Now here it is, 4 o’clock on Friday. She says, I’ll change this for you, but I can’t do it until Monday. And then it’s going to take 24 to 48 hours for us to notify the other agencies that we’ve notified that you’re deceased.

I’m thinking, Oh, lord, this is gonna be a mess. So I ask for documentation showing that I’m not deceased anymore. She made me fill out a form saying that I’m alive and gave me a piece of paper saying that as soon as their records are updated, I will continue to receive my disability payments. I sent it to my bank because our Social Security checks are directly deposited.

I send them the documentation via email on Sunday. I said, here’s the letter. And when I call on Monday to verify that they received my documentation, I’m told that they closed my account and sent the money back to Social Security.

Now Social Security is telling me that they don’t have any record of the company sending back my disability to them.

So I called my bank, and tell them, Social Security has no evidence of you sending it back. Where’s my money? She says, We can’t even find an account for you. We closed your account. They went in and closed my account after I sent them the documentation. Now I have no idea where my disability check is.

What about the money that I had in the account other than my disability? They’re going to send that to me within 30 days, with a paper check. So I said, open my account back up. But their system wasn’t able to do that.

Even my drivers license was suspended.

Then the pharmacy calls me Monday night; I had an infection and the doctor had called in a prescription for me. But Costco calls me and says, We can’t fill your prescription because we keep getting an error saying that you’re deceased. I said, I’m not deceased. So just let me pay cash, and I’ll work it out with the insurance later. But once I’m reported deceased, they can’t give drugs to anybody with that name. That’s going to be a problem for three or four months, they told me.

And then yesterday I was supposed to have injections in my knee. It was preauthorized when I was quote-unquote alive, and my husband said, You better make sure you can still get them. I called, and sure enough, that would have been another big mess because they would have done the procedure, but I found out I wouldn’t have had insurance.

So now we have no money. We have no access to money, and nobody knows where it seems to be. All because I was reported deceased. I called the coroner’s office, and they’re like, No it wasn’t from us. I said, Well, then how can somebody be reported deceased? She’s like, Yeah, you’re right. But it could have just been a human error.

Somebody needs to figure this out. I had nothing to do with it. It’s not like I reported something incorrectly or whatever. I don’t know how it even happened.

Two weeks later, her money is still missing, bills go unpaid, late fees are adding up. “I try to make light of it,” she says, “because otherwise I’d get deeply depressed.”



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