You asked for an opinion on the date of death SSA can use when there is a conflict
between the death certificate and the other evidence submitted. For the following
reasons, we conclude that the date indicated by other evidence as the date of death
may be used when there is a conflict.
According to the facts provided, James M~ (M~), the deceased number holder (NH), and
a friend, Jay A. B~ (B~), went boating on the Sangamon River on December 26, 2003.
Their boat hit a tree and capsized. B~ managed to make it to shore and contact authorities,
reporting that he saw M~ hanging onto the side of the boat. When rescuers arrived,
however, they found the boat near where it capsized, but no sign of M~.
Friends and family members of M~ continued searching up and down the banks of the
river. On March 20, 2004, M~'s body was discovered in a tree, four to five feet above
the current water level of the river. The body was found within a half-mile of the
point where the boat capsized. The clothes on the body matched the description by
B~ of the ones M~ had B~ wearing when he went into the river. Identification was made
during an autopsy, which indicated that the cause of death was drowning. M~ died domiciled
The verdict at the coroner's inquest on March 31, 2004, indicates that M~ came to
his death on March 20, 2004, due to drowning, when his boat capsized on December 26,
2003, on the Sangamon River. The jury ruled the death to be accidental. The Medical
Examiner's - Coroner's Certificate of Death, dated March 31, 2004, also indicated
M~'s date of death as March 20, 2004, and that the cause of death was due to accidental
On April 15, 2004, Kathaleen S~ filed a survivor's claim on behalf of Ashley M. M~,
date of birth October 22, 1986. SSA awarded benefits to Ashley M~ effective March
2004 based on the death certificate. We have been asked whether the earlier date of
December 26, 2003, may be considered the date of death, given the evidentiary conflicts
in the record.
The Social Security Act does not discuss the evidence necessary for a claimant to
demonstrate the death of an insured, but the Social Security Regulations and POMS
provide guidance. According to POMS GN 00304.001C.1, proof of death is needed when "b. Conflicting reports raise a question about the
month or year of death." The POMS goes on to state, "[t]here may be a conflict between
the application (or other material in the file relating to the date of death) and
other evidence. If such a conflict exists, accept the date indicated by the other
evidence unless the discrepancy is material and is not satisfactorily explained. In
this case obtain more evidence as to the correct date of death." POMS GN 00304.001C.3.
According to the application for benefits, Ms. S~ reported that M~'s date of death
was March 20, 2004. The evidence provided included the verdict at the coroner's inquest
on March 31, 2004, which indicated that M~ came to his death on March 20, 2004, due
to drowning, when his boat capsized on December 26, 2003, on the Sangamon River. The
Medical Examiner's - Coroner's Certificate of Death, dated March 31, 2004, also indicated
M~'s date of death as March 20, 2004, and that the cause of death was due to accidental
drowning. Finally, you provided newspaper articles which indicate that M~ disappeared
after his boat capsized on December 26, 2003, and that he was missing until his body
was found on March 20, 2004.
When an application for benefits is made on the record of a deceased person, SSA asks
for evidence of the date and place of his death. 20 C.F.R. § 404.720(a). The best
evidence of a person's death, or the "preferred evidence," includes a certified copy
or extract from the public record of death, coroner's report of death, or verdict
of a coroner's jury; or a certificate by the custodian of the public record of death.
20 C.F.R. § 404.720(b); see also POMS GN 00304.005B.1.d. In the instant case, the information you provided included a verdict of a coroner's
jury and a death certificate. According to those documents, M~ died due to drowning
as a consequence of his boat having capsized in a river on December 26, 2003; however,
the documents also indicate the date of death as March 20, 2004. Thus, there appears
to be an internal inconsistency regarding the date of death in the "preferred evidence."
Because there appears to be a conflict between the date of death in the application
(March 20, 2004) and other evidence submitted regarding Mr. M~'s date of death (December
26, 2003 or March 20, 2004), SSA should consider the date of death indicated by the
other evidence. See POMS GN 00304.001C.3. However, as indicated, the other evidence is not entirely clear regarding Mr. M~'s
date of death.
Although we could not find any case on point, SSA's treatment of the date of death
issue in disappearance situations, where no body was found, is instructive. According
to SSR 99-1p, in a disappearance case, for the purposes of a NH's entitlement to benefits,
the NH's death will be presumed to have occurred on the date of disappearance, the
date ending the seven year period,  or some other date depending upon what the evidence shows is the most likely date
of death. Thus, in the case of a missing person, SSA has the right to end benefits
on the date of disappearance, barring convincing evidence that establishes a more
likely date of death. Id.
In SSR 72-1c, which discusses the case of Lahr v. Richardson, 328 F.Supp. 996 (N.D. Ill. 1971) aff'd 476 F.2d 1088 (7th Cir. 1973), an old-age
beneficiary who was mentally incompetent and in deteriorating mental condition disappeared
from a nursing home in May 1961, and was neither seen nor heard from again. L~, 328 F.Supp. at 997. Monthly benefits continued to be paid to Henry L. on his father's
behalf, through August 1963. Id. The NH was declared legally dead in May 1968, seven years after his disappearance,
in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. Id. Because monthly social security payments are authorized to continue only while the
recipient is living, with certain qualifications, any payments made after the month
preceding NH's death were improper and should be returned. 42 U.S.C. § 402(a). The
Agency, by a hearing examiner, determined that the probability that the NH died on
or shortly after May 30, 1961, the date he disappeared from the nursing home, was
greater than the probability that he survived for seven years. L~, 328 F.Supp. at 997. The examiner's opinion relied on the NH's expressed unhappiness
at the nursing home, his failing mental condition, and the proximity of the nursing
home to Lake Michigan. Id. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that
there was no reason to reverse the hearing examiner's decision, since it was based
on substantial evidence. Id. Thus, the court allowed the Agency to find a different date of death than what was
legally determined by a State court to be the NH's date of death, based on the evidence.
See also Marshall v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., No. 85-5241, 1986 WL 16334 (6th Cir. Jan. 30, 1986) (holding substantial evidence
existed both to rebut the presumption that the wage earner survived the seven years
following his disappearance and to support the ALJ's determination that it was more
probable that the wage earner died on the date of his disappearance); Meriwether v. Apfel, No. 98-2172-KHV, 1999 WL 450899 (D. Kan. May 11, 1999) (Commissioner not equitably
estopped from using the date of NH's disappearance as the date of his presumed death
under 20 C.F.R. § 404.721(b)).
The Agency was also allowed to determine the date of death in a disappearance case
based on the evidence presented in Sullivan v. Weinberger, No. C-C-C74-167, 1975 WL 4169 (W.D.N.C April 4, 1975) (discussed in SSR 76-1c).
In that case, Lola Sullivan first filed an application seeking survivor's benefits
under the Act in 1963. Id. at *1. Her application was denied on that and several other occasions. Id. at *1. According to the facts in Sullivan, the wager earner ran from his home during
flood conditions on February 25, 1961, after having come home intoxicated and shooting
one of his 12 children in the shoulder. Id. The wage earner was not seen or heard from again. Id. A State court determined that the wage earner died of drowning on February 25, 1961;
there had Been flooding in the area. Id. The United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, in considering
the application for survivor's insurance benefits, held that the State court's ruling
as to the date of death was not controlling, and sufficient testimony and evidence
existed to support a conclusion that the wage earner did not die on February 25, 1961,
and to support a presumption of death seven years after his disappearance. Id. at 2. The court noted that it was not bound by the State court's determination of
the date of death. Id. at 1. An Agency hearing examiner determined on April 25, 1974, that the wage earner
had not died on February 25, 1961, but that his death should be presumed to have occurred
seven years later on February 25, 1968. Id. at 1-2. The decision was affirmed by the Appeals Council. Id. at 1. The court held that, although from the transcript of the hearing, one could
conclude that the wage earner had died on February 25, 1961, there was enough testimony
to the contrary to support a presumption of death several years after the disappearance.
Id. at 2.
As stated, although there is no precedent dealing with the specific facts at hand,
the rationale from L~ and S~ shows that the Agency may accept a different determination
regarding the date of death than deemed to be the legal date of death or the date
of death found by a state court, where the evidence supports such a finding. Based
on the rationale in those cases and in POMS GN 00304.001C.3., even in a case where a body has been found, if there is a conflict between the date
of death in the application and other evidence (including the preferred evidence,
which here was the verdict of the coroner's jury and death certificate, and the newspaper
articles), SSA can weigh the conflicting evidence and find the reasonable date of
death based on other evidence. In the instant case, because other evidence also reflected
inconsistencies regarding the date of death, in balancing the evidence, SSA could
reasonably find that M~'s date of death occurred on December 26, 2003, the date his
boat capsized. In doing so, SSA could reasonably discount the March 20, 2004 date
discussed in the verdict of the coroner's jury and death certificate based on the
inconsistent rationale provided in such documents as well as the information provided
in the newspaper articles.
We conclude that, in the instant case, given the evidentiary conflicts regarding the
date of death in the various documents provided, SSA could reasonably find that the
NH's date of death was December 26, 2003.