Canada Revenue Agency mistakes put hundreds of Canadians among walking dead

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Kerry-Lynne Findlay has been handed the federal Conservative nomination in Delta-Ricmond East.

Believe it or not, there's a thriving population of walking dead in Canada.

They're not noshing on brains like your regular zombies. They're just like us. It's simply that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has decided they're deceased, despite their protestations to the contrary, a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Postmedia News reports the federal Taxpayers' Ombudsman is putting the finishing touches on a special report on the issue, though the CRA says it hasn't yet decided if there's a systemic problem.

But Postmedia News said briefing materials for new Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay that it obtained under access-to-information legislation suggest it's one of three "systemic issues" the ombudsman is studying.

"The Taxpayers’ Ombudsman is currently reviewing a number of systemic issues and additional special reports are anticipated in 2012-13," says the document provided to Findlay when she took over the portfolio in July.

"The systemic issues currently under review include three that were requested by the previous (Revenue) Minister, the Honourable Gail Shea: CRA training videos; Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB) calculation errors; Taxpayers wrongfully declared deceased."

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The CRA gets news of taxpayers' deaths from a variety of sources, including family members and other government agencies, Postmedia News said.

The agency acknowledges there are occasional errors but the numbers are small.

Of the more than 380,000 total deaths reported in 2012, errors occurred in 0.1 per cent of the cases, which translates to about 380 people, the agency told Postmedia News.

"At this time, it has not been determined that taxpayers erroneously declared as deceased is in fact a systemic issue," CRA spokeswoman Mylene Croteau told Postmedia News in an email. "The Office of the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman is reviewing this situation and has not yet made a determination."

The shift to get such information electronically from most provinces has cut the error rate, she added.

The low incidence of erroneously dead Canadians probably is little comfort to people like 85-year-old Maria Francisco, whom the CRA declared dead last year, resulting in the cutoff of her Ontario Trillium benefit.

"These are people who work for the government," her daughter Lavinia Nassif, who lives with her mother in North York, told the Toronto Star last October. "How do you put someone in the computer as dead without any death certificate?"

Nassif only learned about the situation when she got a letter at their home addressed to the estate of the late Maria Francisco. Undoing the mistake was made harder by the fact the local CRA office no longer saw members of the public and only responds to mail enquiries, she said.

A call to the CRA's toll-free number revealed Nassif couldn't deal with the problem unless her mother filled out a form authorizing it – which proved difficult because Francisco is illiterate. To add insult to injury, if the matter wasn't cleared up by month's end, Francisco's pension would be cut off.

A CRA spokesman told the Star the agency's computer will declare someone dead if they accidentally write their date of birth in the section of the tax form for date of death. Mistakes can also turn up if the agency's data-entry clerks, who work at a pace of 180 keystrokes a minute, hit the wrong key.

If the CRA determines you're dead, that information is relayed to Services Canada, which can result in Canada Pension and Old Age Security payments being halted.

"We do take it seriously because it’s disruptive and disturbing to individuals," the CRA's Sam Papadopoulos told the Star.

Nassif was finally able to reach someone via the toll-free line who verified Francisco's identity through a number of questions.

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The problem, of course, isn't exclusive to the CRA. A Winnipeg man was declared dead by Manitoba's public auto insurer in 2012, QMI Agency reported.

George Johannesen got a letter addressed to his estate informing him that his driver's licence had been cancelled by Manitoba Public Insurance.

"I don't understand how this could have happened," Johannesen told QMI Agency.

"For me to be declared dead, someone would have to present a death certificate. For someone to get that, I guess I must have died sometime in October."

A spokesperson for the government insurer said the mistake was unrelated to its operation but could not give specific details, citing privacy rules.

In the United States, the federal Social Security Administration mistakenly declares thousands of Americans dead each year.

CNN reported in 2011 that of the 2.8 million death reports the administration receives each year, about 14,000 are incorrectly entered into the Death Master File. That's about one in 200.

"Erroneous death entries can lead to benefit termination, cause severe financial hardship and distress to affected individuals, and result in the publication of living individuals' [personal identifying information] in the [Death Master File]," the Inspector General said in its most recent evaluation of the database, CNN reported.

And like in Canada, the mistake can result in cancelled benefit payments and a sometimes nightmarish journey through the bureaucracy to resurrect themselves.