Sixteen years ago, Madeline-Michelle Carthen, a resident of St. Louis, Missouri, was gearing up for a summer internship in Ghana through Webster University’s intern exchange program when she received a startling piece of news: her social security number had been linked to a deceased person.
Initially brushing it off as a simple mistake, Carthen laughed and wondered how this could possibly affect her international internship plans. Little did she know that this error would turn her life upside down, leading to a series of challenges that continue to haunt her to this day.
The trouble began in the summer of 2007 when Carthen, a business technology student and mother, was admitted into Webster’s International Business Intern Exchange Program, offering her the opportunity to travel abroad. As part of her preparations, she needed to reapply for financial aid to cover her summer semester expenses. During this process, her financial aid advisor discovered that her social security number was listed as deceased. School authorities advised her to contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) and informed her that she would have to withdraw from school until the issue was resolved.
Carthen promptly reached out to the SSA, where she learned that she had been erroneously added to their Death Master File, an internal database compiling SSA records of deceased individuals with social security numbers. She was informed that her inclusion in this list was a mistake and was given a “death erroneous letter” to provide to credit bureaus as proof of her being alive.
However, things took a turn for the worse as the erroneous information began affecting various aspects of her life. The error propagated to government agencies like the IRS, the Department of Homeland Security, and E-Verify, causing a cascade of problems that she could not have foreseen.
Over the years, Carthen lost jobs because payroll departments couldn’t process her social security number, faced vehicle repossessions, and even experienced evictions from homes. Her ability to secure a mortgage remains elusive, and the uncertainty of when her life would be upended again is a constant source of anxiety.
Despite her relentless efforts, Carthen remains in the Death Master File, and she is still uncertain about how her name ended up on this list.
The SSA recommends that individuals who suspect they’ve been incorrectly declared deceased should visit their local Social Security office as soon as possible, armed with the necessary documentation.
Carthen has tirelessly attempted to rectify her situation, submitting numerous documents to the SSA, reaching out to four U.S. Presidents for assistance, and engaging with other government officials. In 2019, she even filed a federal lawsuit against the SSA and other agencies, but it was dismissed due to government sovereign immunity.
In 2021, Carthen thought she had made progress when she was issued a new social security number, and she legally changed her name from Madeline Coburn to distance herself from the issue. However, her new social security number remains flagged because it is still connected to the old one.
Carthen’s story gained media attention in 2007 when it was covered by media in St. Louis. The news station has recently expressed commitment to assisting her in resolving this ongoing issue.
With unwavering determination, Carthen refuses to give up, driven by her strong faith and a desire to not only rectify her situation but also help others facing similar challenges. She stated, “I don’t care if it takes 20 years; I’m going to still do what I’ve got to do to make this situation right, not just for myself but for others.”