October 18, 2006
Local Resident Back From Dead
When Water Mill resident Jeff Conway lost his wife, Sandra Miller, in July, he was overwhelmed with grief and sorrow. Tragic enough to bear, and yet, things were about to get even more difficult. When the Social Security benefits to which he was entitled after his wife's death failed to arrive, Conway did some investigating — only to learn that, according to Social Security records, he had died on the very same day as his wife.
"I don't have much patience with bureaucracy," said Conway. "This is really just bringing it to the fore for me."
Conway met his wife Sandy at a party in 1989. Originally from England, Conway was living with a friend in Bridgehampton when he was invited to a party given by a tennis pro in East Hampton. It was an 18-year union blessed in love and good fortune until Sandy, a teacher and guidance counselor, was diagnosed with cancer. After a valiant struggle, she died on July 6. She was 64.
The days after Sandy's death were dark for Conway, who was dealing not only with grief but with making his way through the overwhelming morass of paperwork. "After my wife died, there was no will," he said. "Even today, it's a major problem. I spend most of my time corresponding back and forth to the school where she worked, sending death certificates."
Although Conway's first contact with Social Security was positive — he received his first payment with no problems — it was while he was waiting for the second payment that he noticed something was amiss.
He thought, at first, that it might have had to do with the fact that he's only been in the country since 1987, or that, perhaps, he was too young; Conway will turn 63 in February.
But the paperwork said, "in black and white," that he was due approximately $1600 a month. "I figured there must be a glitch in the system," he said.
After calling the Social Security Administration, he spoke with a representative who remembered his accent and went to decipher what had gone wrong. "He cracked up; he was laughing his head off," said Conway. "He told me, 'No wonder you haven't gotten any money — you're dead.'"
Conway was shocked. "I knew right away that someone had screwed up."
Because his payments were linked to his wife's, most likely, when Sandy died, a mistake was made and Conway was marked deceased, also. The clincher, said Conway, came later: "The whole point is the stupidity of bureaucracy. The man told me there was a letter on its way to me, telling me that they wanted that first payment back — that it had been paid to a dead man. They were smart enough in the system to pick that up, but not smart enough to realize that I wasn't dead. It's hilarious, yet it's not."
"I had to go there to prove to them I'm alive. Is someone going to pay for my gas money?"
Feeling persecuted, Conway made the pilgrimage to Riverhead. "I went back and got resurrected," he said. "Not one person said 'I'm sorry to hear about your wife.'"
In fact, Conway said he was told that such mix-ups happen often.
A call to Social Security confirmed that this is not the first time that an a living individual has been declared dead and buried, bound by red tape. But, said Clara, a Social Security representative who asked that her last name be withheld, "As soon as the person goes into the local office and shows that he's still alive, they'll change the record back to what it was supposed to be."