Legal Resurrection If You're Declared Dead in Ohio

What do you do when a clerical error “kills” you?

By Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Last updated on June 2, 2022

What if you woke up one morning to find that you had been declared dead—even though your heart was still beating, your lungs were still taking in air and your thoughts were still swirling around in your head?

Believe it or not, this happens. And, in most cases, this is caused by a simple clerical error at the Social Security Administration (SSA). In 2011, an audit estimated that about a thousand people per month were declared legally dead, but an SSA employee has said that the number is likely closer to 500 per month now. Regardless, it happens often enough it is a FAQ on their website. Most of the people declared dead are retired and more than 60 years old.

When the SSA is notified of someone passing away, they will often additionally receive that person’s social security number; they will quickly post it to the death master index. Anything then tied to your social security number could go void, including: credit information, employment status, tax information, government identification, home ownership status, etc.

There have been some interesting cases, historically, of living people being declared dead. Donald E. Miller Jr. was declared dead in 1994 after running out on his wife, Robin Miller, and two children. After almost two decades of alcohol abuse, he returned home. Due to a statute of limitations that requires someone declared dead to appeal within three years in Ohio, a probate judge declared the man—standing in front of him—dead.

It turns out that the SSA gave Donald Miller’s wife and kids his benefits after he was declared dead. Resurrecting him would require his widow to pay back almost $30,000. The SSA later administratively closed their collection case against her, and it was reported that Miller petitioned the federal SSA for a new social security number.

If someone has been deemed legally dead, they should attempt to rectify the situation as quickly as possible. It can take a minimum of two months, and up to two years, to legally resurrect yourself from a declaration of death.

If this happens to you, or someone you know, you will first want to find out who “killed” you—and then take them with you to a probate court. There, you can file for an amended death certificate. You should then take that certificate, along with one or two pieces of legal identification, to your social security office—which can be located here. The SSA should be able to send an erroneous death case notice. This back to life letter is the proof creditors, banks and any third party will need to reopen your accounts.

This process may be very tricky, and there could be potential fraud concerns if your information was published on the death master index. The most prudent course of action may be to contact a reputable and experienced probate attorney who can legally bring you back from the dead, and be certain that your future life is protected.

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of estate planning, wills, trusts, and probate and estate administration.


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