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Saturday, May 02 2009 12:00 PM

Man to government: I'm not dead yet

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    By Alex Horvath

    Alex Horvath / The Californian Joe Silva swears he's not dead, despite government's insistance to the contrary. When the 76-year-old Bakersfield man received a letter earlier this month from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs addressed to "representative of the estate of Joseph F. Silva," he was naturally taken back.

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  2. 2 of 2

    By Alex Horvath

    Alex Horvath / The Californian Joe Silva looks over paper work on his kitchen table. When the 76-year-old Bakersfield man received a letter earlier this month from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs addressed to "representative of the estate of Joseph F. Silva," he was naturally taken back.

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BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Joe Silva swears he's not dead, despite government's insistence to the contrary.

Still, when three separate gargantuan federal agencies say you've kicked the bucket, it may be time to check your pulse.

"I might be old but I'm not dead," Silva insists as he looks through a pile of paperwork spread across his kitchen table.

"Shouldn't the government require a copy of a death certificate before they terminate your retirement pension?"

The exaggerated reports of Silva's death came to light in April when the 77-year-old Bakersfield man received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs addressed to "representative of the estate of Joseph F. Silva."

"We are sorry to learn of the death of Joseph F. Silva and wish to express our sympathy," the letter begins.

But the strains of compassion quickly yield to the business at hand: "Any checks received after the date of death ... should be returned."

That wasn't the end of it.

Next came condolences from Social Security along with a request for a death certificate.

But the real topper arrived from the federal Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the agency that keeps track of military pensions.

Silva's teenage son and daughter -- he became a dad again late in life -- each received letters dripping with funereal sentiment.

"We at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service-Cleveland Center are sincerely sorry to learn of the death of your father," the letters begin.

Oh, and by the way, the letter continues, there's some important business you probably should attend to.

According to Silva, the agency should be "sincerely sorry" for sending the letters to his kids at all.

His 19-year-old daughter, Joemy, "cried a little" upon first reading the letter, Silva said.

His 17-year-old son, Brandon, was also disappointed by the bureaucratic blunder.

"It was kind of odd, ridiculous and uncalled-for," Brandon says.

Since receiving the premature notices of his demise, Silva has been working hard to get it straightened out. Using letters, phone calls and faxes, the military veteran and retired federal worker is doing everything he can to make sure his benefits are reinstated.

"I need that money to pay my bills," he said.

Larry Fillipo, a spokesman for the VA's Veteran Benefits Administration in Los Angeles, said there's no way to know for sure how the agency concluded Silva had passed.

"It is possible we received notice from another agency," he acknowledged.

Silva theorizes that the goof started with Social Security. That agency's letter was the only one that mentioned Silva's supposed date of death: March 4.

Unfortunately Silva's older son, Michael, died on that date. Joe Silva believes the government got sloppy in its record keeping and somehow concluded he had died instead of his son.

Ruben Varela, district manager at Social Security's East Hills office in Bakersfield, chalked up the mistake to human error.

"We get death notices from the county monthly," Varela said. "There are a lot of ways we learn of a person's passing."

Including communicating with other government agencies.

"But when human error does happen, we have ways to fix it," he added.

Somehow that's not entirely comforting to Silva.

"When I worked for the federal government, I tried to do the best job possible," Silva said. "We would never had made a mistake like this."

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