For nearly 2 decades, this St. Louis woman says she has been trying to prove she’s not dead

Madeline-Michelle Carthen tells the I-Team she has been wrongly labeled as dead, and it has impacted every aspect of her life.

Brett Jordan

A St. Louis woman told 5 On Your Side’s I-Team that for nearly two decades, she’s been wrongly labeled as dead, blocked from going to college and even buying a house.

Madeline-Michelle Carthen is trying to escape the anxiety she’s been dealing with for 17 years.

“A nightmare of corruption. No oversight with government,” Carthen said.

Because she said the government thinks she’s dead.

“It’s like a haunting,” she said.

5 On Your Side covered her struggle in 2007. She was a student at Webster University majoring in entrepreneurship and business technology.

“I got denied my financial aid,” she said in the May 2007 report. “Now, they’re saying, ‘Prove to us you’re not dead.”

Carthen said the lender even sent her paperwork showing she was “deceased.” Credit reports showed the same thing.

She couldn’t graduate, and nearly two decades later, nothing has gotten easier.

“It messed up my whole life,” Carthen said. “… It’s impacted my life, financially. If I wanted to buy a house, that won’t happen.”

She said she can’t get a mortgage, and even keeping a job is nearly impossible.

“It’s just a matter before my Social Security number catches up with me, and then they have to let me go … H.R. can’t process payroll,” she said. 

Our investigation finds the government wrongly labels up to 12,000 living Americans as dead every year. It’s often simply the result of mistakes. Someone will type in the wrong number, for example. It happens to a fraction of a percent of people. But when it does happen, the result can be catastrophic.

And here’s where the problem can start: The Social Security Administration compiles what’s called the Death Master File. Once you’re added, places like banks, the IRS, and Medicare wipe you out of existence. If you’re added by mistake, there’s a devastating domino effect. 

“It can really impact every single aspect of your life,” said Creighton Cohn, a consumer protection attorney based in St. Louis.

What to do if you’re wrongly declared dead

For those dealing with this issue, there are steps to take to correct it.

“So the first is to figure out where the information came from, so get your credit report. That’s always the first thing to do and always should get it from,” Cohn said.

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