When his monthly pension check showed up in his account on March 1, Chuck Zellers was in Arizona.
And he was still in Arizona three weeks later, when he checked his account again and the check had disappeared, something that had never before happened.
Puzzled, the 73-year-old Lincoln man called his bank thinking maybe there’d been a computer glitch.
U.S. Bank told him to call Mellon Bank, who told him to call his pension administrator, who told him he was dead.
“And I said, ‘Oh?’ and I got a little concerned,” the retiree said late last week.
Chuck and his wife, Alice, spend their winters in Ajo, Arizona, and after that phone call, they drove 130 miles to the federal building in Phoenix.
It was ringed with people the day before Tax Day, and they went from door to door trying to figure out who to talk to.
Eventually, they found the Social Security office, took a number and waited three hours until a friendly woman called his name.
“I gave her my passport and my driver’s license and she goes clickety-clickety-click and she says, ‘Oh, by golly, you are dead,’ and she laughed about it.”
The dead man laughed, too, but he still didn’t have his money. Since then, he’s learned that these things happen. (According to his online research about 14,000 times a year, out of 2.8 million deaths).
“She told me it could be a funeral home declared you deceased; or that someone just put in a wrong keystroke or something like that.”
They will probably never know, Chuck said Monday afternoon, standing at a kitchen counter covered with documents and copies of bank statements and notarized letters -- the fallout from someone, somewhere, declaring Charles Richard Zellers II of Lincoln, Nebraska, deceased.
The couple cut their Arizona trip short so Chuck could continue his quest with the folks at Lincoln’s Social Security office.
And, like the rest of the government employees he’s encountered, they’ve been helpful and friendly, he said.
“They were readily able to find me in the system as dead, and they promised to get to work on it right away, so this impressed me.”
Chuck retired from his computer job at Unisys in 2000. His pension check and his Social Security check are his two main sources of income.
So not getting either one of them was a pretty big deal, and now the ordeal has stretched to more than two months.
The good news is this: The Lincoln Social Security office, seeing him alive and armed with documentation, cut him a check for $999.99, and an additional sum for the lost March payment has been deposited online.
“It looks like they are reversing things for me.”
This makes him feel lucky -- considering the horror stories he's read online.
“It took some people up to a year to get things straightened out.”
But here’s the rub: Despite the normally glacial pace of government, news apparently travels fast when Social Security declares you a goner.
The word was already out -- via a national dead person data base -- by the time Social Security brought him back from the grave.
The Veteran’s Administration stopped his disability payment, but then reinstated it, Chuck said.
He didn’t have a credit rating at any of the three major credit rating agencies when he checked last month.
“My accounts were suspended.”
The rating has since returned.
“One of the insurance companies was getting ready to pay me off, so I got that stopped.”
He has yet to receive a pension check.
In the three weeks they’ve been home, Chuck has spent several hours a day proving he is alive. Making phone calls, carting around a notarized letter from the Social Security Administration as proof of his status -- plus showing his actual face.
It's a task not everyone could handle, Alice says.
"What about an 80-year-old, or my mom? She couldn't have done that."
It was "a lot of driving and a lot of calling," Chuck says.
And he's not done yet.
On Monday, the organized man held a stack of paperwork, including two recent letters from the Social Security office, the agency that declared him dead in March.
One letter was addressed to him, the second to his wife. He couldn’t quite figure out what his letter was trying to tell him, but Alice’s letter was clear: It said she owed $2,276.60.
Money the agency said they sent her after her husband died, money the couple say they never got.
The pair plan a return trip to the federal building this week; the dead husband will ask for an explanation.