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Death involves a lot of paperwork. It’s not something people associate with losing a loved one, but for Wendy Boka Gonzalez, paperwork was one of the things she hated most after her husband died suddenly at age 31 of a pulmonary embolism — when one or more of the pulmonary arteries in the lungs is blocked. They were high school sweethearts, Brian and Wendy, and death had cruelly ruptured that bond. She loathed the paperwork confirming it.

“I was a little slow about some things, like getting his name off bank accounts,” Gonzalez said. “I had to go in with the death certificate, and I hated doing that. It felt so cold, and final, and official.”

She’d eventually be done with it, she thought, and she’d no longer have to struggle with documenting the end of Brian and Wendy. One of the things she had to do to complete that process was file their last joint tax return, so she and her accountant, Jason Dinesen, prepared everything in April 2011 and submitted their taxes electronically. At least, that was the plan. The electronic file was rejected, because someone had already filed a tax return using Brian Boka’s Social Security number.

All she wanted to do was move on from the tragedy, but the months that followed were practically the opposite of that. Loads of paperwork kept Brian’s death fresh in Gonzalez’s mind for more than two years.

Dealing With Identity Theft

Wendy BokaUntil recently, the Death Master File was a publicly available document through the Social Security Administration, allowing anyone to obtain sensitive information on recently deceased citizens, like their Social Security numbers, names, dates of birth, state and ZIP code of last residence. In other words, it was an identity thief’s jackpot.

From what Gonzalez and Dinesen understand, that’s how someone stole Boka’s identity. (In 2013, President Barack Obama signed a law requiring certification, which involves paying fees, to access entries in the Death Master File added within the past three years. It went into effect earlier this year.)

When Dinesen contacted the Internal Revenue Service, he was instructed to send a paper tax return to the IRS. Three months passed and neither he nor Gonzalez heard anything about her refund, he inquired about the status of it, and the IRS told him they needed to fix an error with the paperwork.

“‘You have to fill out this particular form and a copy of the death certificate,'” Dinesen recalled. “So we sent it to them. By September 2011, again, nothing came from the IRS — no acknowledgment that they had received any of these documents.”

After Death & Identity Theft, Debt Collectors

In September 2011, Gonzalez started receiving collection notices from the IRS, saying she was going to face collection action for failing to file her taxes. When she and Dinesen followed up with the collections department of the IRS, no one there had any knowledge of her identity theft claim. For the next several months — until she eventually received the refund check — Dinesen had to call the collections department every 60 days to renew a hold on collection activity.

Meanwhile, nothing came of the identity theft report or the tax return. In September 2012 — a year after sending the corrected identity theft documents to the IRS — they found out what the problem was. On the identity theft paperwork, Gonzalez’s name was listed first. Because Boka was the victim, the IRS wanted his name first on the paperwork. Dinesen and Gonzalez were told to redo everything.

“They tried calling Wendy,” Dinesen, thinking back to a conference call he, Gonzalez and the IRS had in 2012. By the time the IRS reached out about the paperwork issues, Gonzalez had moved to Texas and had a new phone number, so the IRS didn’t reach her. “Apparently, they just gave up. This was the first that we were hearing about this.”

A spokesman for the IRS said tax law prevents him from commenting on any consumer’s specific situation, but that the IRS takes identity theft “very seriously,” and “we work hard to get the right people their refunds.”

Dinesen was already extremely annoyed with the IRS, but when they told him and Gonzalez to redo all the paperwork they’d already filed, he was in disbelief. He tried to argue it was unfair they had to start over, but the IRS insisted it was procedure, so again Dinesen reworked the documents, and the waiting continued.

At Last, a Check

In January 2013, Gonzalez was due to get her refund. There was just one problem: The IRS told her it would be sent to her old address in Iowa, where she and Boka lived when he died. She had filed a change of address with the IRS, and they knew she lived in Texas, but they said it would go to Iowa, get returned, and her check would be re-issued in March.

“I mean, it was just really frustrating and mind-boggling when we get to the point where everyone knows what needs to be done, and yet it just can’t happen,” Gonzalez said. “They basically said, ‘OK in six to eight weeks, we are going to make this error.’ That was so frustrating, and the solution they gave me was to call the post office and have them look for the check or find out who was living in my old apartment and have them send me the check.”

It’s undeniably an absurd situation, but that’s how it went. The $2,000 check went to Iowa, was returned and re-issued to Texas by summer 2013. It arrived 850 days after she first filed her return in 2011.

It was finally over, but that didn’t lessen the pain Gonzalez felt from needing to repeatedly provide the IRS documents of her personal tragedy.

“I had to keep dealing with these files and these documents I would rather have put in the closet. It was just ridiculous,” she said.

Boka and Gonzalez had life insurance, and she says she feels lucky she didn’t need that refund in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death. Her debacle with the IRS became more a battle of principle, rather than one of necessity.

To put in perspective just how long this ordeal was: “It’s pretty crazy I got remarried before this was sorted out.” Gonzalez and her husband are expecting a baby any day now.

It can be extremely difficult to avoid identity theft like what Gonzalez experienced. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on your financial accounts and credit to make sure if you are a victim, you can act quickly. Your credit scores will change if an identity thief uses information like your Social Security number to open new accounts in your name, and you can check your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.

While it helps to file your taxes early and head off thieves, it’s not always practical or possible to do so. Dinesen said the big lesson he took away from this experience was to be more aggressive when dealing with the IRS. He said victims of identity theft should “address it immediately and keep after it.” Even if you can’t control how people on the other end of the phone are doing their jobs, it’s in your best interest to stay organized, informed and committed to resolving your case.

More on Identity Theft:

Main image: iStock; Inset image courtesy of Wendy Boka

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