How to Stop Federal Agencies from Paying Dead People

Legislation has been introduced in an effort to curtail the billions in improper payments that federal agencies send to dead people.

Legislation has been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate that aims to stop federal agencies from sending money to people who are deceased.

The Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act (H.R. 4929) would allow all federal agencies access to the Death Master File, the most complete information on who has died, maintained by the Social Security Administration.

Surprisingly enough, only a small number of agencies have access to this database, and most federal agencies rely on a slimmed down, incomplete, and less timely version of the file. What is then perhaps not surprising is that money often gets sent to people who are dead.

Some History

Improper payments have been a frequent criticism of wasteful spending in government, and sadly, the problem has been around for years.

A 2015 Government Accountability Office report estimated that federal agencies disbursed nearly $125 billion in improper payments to ineligible recipients in FY 2014. And the Office of Personnel Management IG found in a 2011 report that $601 million in improper payments were made to federal retirees who had died over the previous five years.

Senator James Lankford (R-OK) highlighted the problem in the 2015 edition of his annual report on wasteful government spending.

A section titled “I See Dead People” said:

In what would be a boon for the birthday candle industry, an analysis of SSA files showed that approximately 6.5 million people who are 112 years old or older are still alive. In reality fewer than 40 individuals in the world ever reach that age.

Details of the Legislation

Fast forward to today, and the problem hasn’t gone away, so the same sponsors of the original bill that failed to pass when it was introduced in 2015 want to see changes made.

“The federal government makes billions of dollars in improper payments each year, including Social Security payments to deceased beneficiaries. This bipartisan measure will slash through red tape in the federal bureaucracy to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse as well as protect taxpayer money. We must give the Social Security Administration more tools to ensure the federal government isn’t paying benefits to deceased people,” said Congressman Greg Gianforte (R-MT), one of the co-sponsors of the House bill.

Besides allowing all federal agencies to have access to the complete death database, the bill would also require the Office of Management and Budget to issue guidance to agencies on the use of death data to curb improper payments and establish procedures to ensure more accurate death data.

On the latter point, the bill would, for example, require the SSA to screen for “extremely elderly” individuals. This is in response to a 2015 Inspector General Report that identified 6.5 million individuals currently listed as being older than 112 years of age as still alive.

The legislation is based on recommendations and findings by federal agencies’ Inspectors General, recommendations from the Government Accountability Office, Fiscal Year 2018 Budget proposal, and testimony at Congressional hearings examining the challenges of improper payments to deceased individuals.

The House bill is sponsored Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL) and was also introduced in the Senate (S. 2374) by Tom Carper (D-DE).

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.