Closing Death Records Is Just Dead Wrong!

The threat of Identity Theft has prompted over a thousand legislative proposals at the Federal, state or local level in recent years impacting access to vital records.  The vast majority of these proposals have had the effect of limiting that access for genealogical and other purposes. The rationale used to justify most of these measures suggests an almost reflexive belief that the best or only way to prevent the fraudulent use of such data by identity thieves is to close the records thieves might have used. This logic carries with it the unstated assumption that no harm or costs result from closing such records.

The most dramatic example of this paradigm at the Federal level is found in those provisions in Section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 limiting access to and the content of the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. The context prompting these provisions arose in 2011 from particularly egregious cases of tax fraud by identity theft involving recently deceased children.  Early House and Senate hearings highlighting these horror stories involved a narrative which injected additional elements to the paradigm.

What your legislators have heard can be summarized as follows:

  • The DMF/SSDI was a substantial source of SSNs used in filing fraudulent tax returns.
  • SSNs of deceased individuals need to be protected in the same ways we safeguard those of the living.
  • Simple fix (Silver Bullet?) – Just limit access to DMF
  • Unstated assumption:  Nothing would be lost by closing this resource.
  • Unspecified Assertion:  Alternative sources exist for DMF data.

In fairness, when these issues surfaced in 2011, data needed to understand the nature and magnitude of the identity theft and erroneous payments then making headlines was not available and would not become available for some time.  Initial speculation reflected above became the paradigm upon which legislative responses would be based.

The adoption of Section 203 has presented a unique opportunity to gather data exploring the effectiveness of alternative measures intended to fight identity theft. The most optimistic among us might even suggest that those proposing to close death records at the Federal level may have done us a favor by creating this opportunity to subject this issue to analysis using real data that has subsequently become available rather than acting upon ill-informed speculation. The robust notice and comment process employed by the Department of Commerce in implementing their statutory mandate has provided a forum for gathering actual impact information.

Many of the posts to this blog for the past year have reflected conclusions supported by the data (especially that drawn from the IRS experience) that normally requires well over a year to work its way through their processes.

As that data has become available, what can we conclude?

In summary, I now assert that no elements of the above paradigm upon which responses to the threat of identity theft have been based are supported by the data now available!

The following two tabs change content below.
Legal Advisor to Federation of Genealogical Societies; Former Associate Dean, Texas Wesleyan University School of Law; Colonel (retired), JAGC, USA

Leave a Reply