WILMINGTON, Del. — A dead woman's bank account received a pension deposit for almost 20 years because city officials didn't learn of her passing until June 2016.
The woman, who was not identified in a July 1, 2015-June 30, 2016, audit that The News Journal obtained, received spousal benefits starting in June 1974. She died in November 1997 but Wilmington officials didn't know she had died and continued to automatically deposit about $150 into her account every other week.
In almost two decades past her death, the amount totaled $72,966.60.
If she had begun receiving benefits when she was age 65, she would have been 88 in 1997 when she died but 107 years old in 2016.
The city relied on Comserv, a vendor now out of business, that semi-annually cross-checked employee and pensioner information with death records and Social Security data, City Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter said. This woman's passing did not come up in those searches because it was not documented in Social Security records.
"In this case, it's apparent that her death was not reported until many years after it occurred," she said. A new vendor allows the city treasurer's office to review Social Security information monthly.
The treasurer's office checks the newspaper regularly for death notices, Acting City Auditor Tamara Thompson said. Oftentimes, families call the city about a death, or city employees hear about former colleagues passing away by word of mouth.
Payment stubs are sent to pensioners' homes, and mail to deceased recipients usually bounces back, which alerts the treasurer's office, she said.
"They usually have some way of knowing," she said. "But they never got returned mail for this person. There was no indication that the person was dead."
John Rago, deputy chief of staff for policy and communications for Mayor Mike Purzycki, would not say whether the city is pursuing a criminal investigation into whether someone was spending money from the dead woman's account. The mayor took office in January.
"It’s in the law department’s hands at this time," Jones-Potter said.
Other Wilmington pensioners have received payment after death although for much shorter periods.
One spouse of a pensioner was paid $1,920.84 after dying in May 2015, the audit said. The city didn't learn of the person's passing until June 2016.
Another former city employee was paid $2,008.84 after death, the audit said.
Payments to dead recipients are a problem that state and federal agencies are struggling to combat.
Every year, pension funds in Illinois are sent to dead people, according to a 2016 investigation from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association. From 2010 to 2014, more than 1,000 people were in Illinois' "dead pensioners' club."
In some cases, family members who dipped into their late relatives pension accounts faced criminal charges.
The federal government published a report in 2011 noting problems with a system that relies on family members to report deaths. The Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund loses $120 million a year to deceased annuitants and other improper payments.
Follow Christina Jedra on Twitter: @ChristinaJedra