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More seniors face ‘ludicrous’ reality of being declared dead

More seniors have come forward with stories about losing pension benefits because the Canadian government erroneously declared them dead, leading to questions about how widespread the problem might be.

Miroslaw Konior was ready to put weeks of frustrating calls with Service Canada behind him when he read about Michael Zakrzewski — a fellow Polish-Canadian who’d also found himself dead on paper, but still very much alive in the real world. 

“It’s already two people affected, and maybe there is more,” Konior said. “Everybody’s dealing with it quietly, not realizing it’s a wider problem.” 

In fact, Konior was neither the first nor the last senior to contact CBC News after Zakrzewski’s story was published, despite Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) saying the scenario was so rare it could not provide statistics.

All were able to get their benefits reinstated, but they’re still unsatisfied with the government’s explanation of how it happened in the first place.

Split image of an older man in a blue sweatshirt standing in front of trees and a picture of a government form
Miroslaw Konior, 65, received a letter from Service Canada addressed to his “estate” with an application for his wife to apply for death benefits. (Miroslaw Konior)

Canada acted on foreign death notification

When Konior received a form for his wife to apply for death benefits at the beginning of April, along with a letter addressed to his “estate”, he found the situation funny.

But his good humour faded when he saw that his pension and old age security benefits weren’t in his account. 

“I called the social services and the lady was reluctant to tell me why [the money was not deposited],” he explained. After pressing the agent, she admitted that he — like Zakrzewski — was declared dead based on a notification letter from Poland. 

“But I’m a resident in Canada. I live here,” he said. “Why would Poland send that notification to Canada?” 

A man and woman in their 60s look through a folder with a few documents in it
Michael Zakrzewski and Stefania Zakrzewski were initially told by the Polish government that they never sent the letter the Canadian government used to declare him dead. (Reno Patry/CBC News)

The explanation was particularly confusing to the men because, unlike Canada, Poland was still paying their benefits.

Konior decided not to push the issue with the Polish Social Insurance Institution, known locally as ZUS, while Zakrzewski was assured the letter did not come from them. 

Poland apologizes for clerical mix-up 

But when Service Canada eventually released to Zakrzewski a copy of the “liaison form” that was used as an official death notification, it became clear that this was not a scam or anything malicious, but simply a clerical error. 

ZUS told CBC it sends thousands of these forms to Canadian authorities each year in order to provide or request information on citizens.

In this case, a “date of decision” — a field which does not seem to exist on the bilingual stock form — was incorrectly entered into the “date of death” field. The “place of death” was left empty. 

“We are very sorry that this happened,” ZUS spokesperson Monika Kiełczyńska wrote to CBC. “We apologize both to the person concerned and the Canadian institution.”

After weeks of follow-up calls Zakrzewski said he considered the release of the document a “miracle,” but he’s still waiting for an official written apology. 

A stock form in English and Polish indicates someone died on Dec. 29, 2022
Poland’s social services agency has confirmed to CBC News that a worker accidentally put what it calls the date of its decision into the date of death field on a form it sent to the Canadian government about Michael Zakrzewski. (Michael Zakrzewski)

Not a ‘one-in-a-million’ mistake

Konior, 65, and Zakrzewski, 67, were both tipped off to their erroneous deaths by letters. But some other seniors who contacted CBC never received any notification at all. 

One day in 2021, retired master warrant officer Claude Dionne checked his bank account and “suddenly” the money from his military pension was not there. 

When he called to ask why, he was told that when the phone number on his file — which was never changed after Dionne moved a decade earlier — went out of service, his benefits were halted. 

Dionne said the voice on the other end told him that sometimes people “pass away and we don’t know about it.”

“I wanted an explanation,” said Dionne. “He never got back to me.”

In cases where benefits must be preventively suspended, clients are informed.– Employment and Social Development Canada statement

When Richard Newman, a retired university lab tech, noticed his own bank account was looking a bit light in 2021, he was told that he was assumed dead because he failed to return a government letter. 

“I was rather peeved off,” he said, noting that he was lucky enough to be able to get by without the payments for the three months it took to sort things out.

“The thing is, that money should have been there. And how did they manage to kill me off without a death certificate?” 

With it appearing increasingly unlikely this isn’t a “one-in-a-million” event, Newman said he’s worried about older seniors who don’t have the time and patience to spend weeks pushing for answers. 

‘Wake-up call’ 

That’s also a concern for Laura Tamblyn Watts, founder and CEO of the national seniors’ advocacy group CanAge, who calls it a “ludicrous” reality. 

“The people who reached out [to CBC] were younger, able and they were actually financially managing in a way that allowed them to live through that month by month,” she said. 

Government should be assuming you’re alive unless there is proof to the contrary. It seems like a basic thing to ask for.– Laura Tamblyn Watts

“Many older people would not be in such a privileged position … frankly, we’re going to see people fall through the cracks.”

The people who are the most vulnerable, she said, are least able to properly monitor their finances or advocate for themselves.

The fact these seniors spent weeks trying to unravel their situations should also be a “wake-up call” for an “antiquated” and “labyrinthine” system, said Tamblyn Watts. 

“On the whole, government should be assuming you’re alive unless there is proof to the contrary. It seems like a basic thing to ask for.” 

A blonde woman in a red and black jacket looks directly at the camera.
Laura Tamblyn Watts is the CEO of CanAge, Canada’s National Seniors’ Advocacy Organization. (Laura Tamblyn Watts/CanAge)

ESDC told CBC in an email its priority is ensuring that all seniors receive the “right benefits at the right time” and it takes measures to ensure payments are being made to the right person. 

It went on to say that “in cases where benefits must be preventively suspended, clients are informed.”

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