Less than a year after a Washington couple buried their 21-month-old daughter, they are fighting to prove to the Internal Revenue Service that they were her parents.
Jessica Struthers and Matt Bock were stunned to learn that someone else had stolen their daughter's Social Security number and claimed little Ava on a tax form for the deduction benefits.
"We were shocked. Who does this?" Struthers said. "And, of course, we want to know who and they [IRS] won't tell you."
The couple, who live in Blaine, Wash., with their three sons and a foster child they are working to adopt, said the person who stole Ava's identity has already received the federal tax return worth several thousand dollars for their deceased daughter.
"It makes me sick," Struthers said.
The burden of proof, they said, is now on them.
Ava, born in November 2007, was a twin who made a habit of running on the tips of her toes and stretching out the word "Daddy" with delight when Bock came home from work.
She died in August after she climbed into the family's backyard swimming pool and drowned.
"After she passed away, I feel like a big hole got cut into my heart," Bock said.
For her grief-stricken parents, having to go to great lengths to prove she was their daughter is sometimes just too much to bear.
"You just don't want to talk about it every single day," Struthers said. "That was supposed to be the closing of the year and trying to move on. It just seems like we can't get past that."
The couple, who are engaged and file separate taxes, found out that their daughter's identity had been stolen when Bock's electronic tax filing was rejected about 48 hours after he submitted it. Bock said he thought at first there was some kind of discrepancy because of Ava's death.
That's when he learned that someone else had already claimed his daughter. And then, not knowing Ava had died, an IRS agent told Bock that the easiest thing to do to resolve the problem would be to simply leave her off his own filing and try again next year.
"There is no next year," Bock said he told the IRS agent, his anger rising.
"We're not looking for the easiest thing to do," Struthers said. "Whoever claimed her does not have the right to claim her."
The IRS declined to comment, saying it is against policy to discuss individual taxpayers.
"I'd like them to go to jail. It's fraud," Bock said of whoever stole Ava's identity. "They're messing with the IRS. But the IRS is just going to lay there and take it. They don't care."
Expert: Stopping Identity Theft in Deceased Children Nearly Impossible
Stopping thieves like the person who took Ava's identity, however, is next to impossible, experts say.
Death certificates, in most states, are public record, meaning anyone can search a death registry at their town hall and come away with the decedant's name, date of birth, address and Social Security number.
Jay Foley, executive director of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center, said some thieves will go to the trouble of seeking out children's graves at cemeteries.
"You walk around and you can find the markers for children that have been buried," he said. "You take that information to the county clerk's office and death registration and bingo, bingo, boom."
Children account for about 5 percent of all identity theft victims, Foley said, but the true number, especially when it comes to dead children, is hard to nail down because parents may not notice for years, if at all.
"This isn't reserved for dead infants," Foley said. "We've seen this go all the way up to 16- and 17-year-olds."
Foley said he knew of one case in which credit card applications were filed in a teenager's name just four days after the teen had died.
"Some of them are professionals," he said. "Some of them are opportunists."
Struthers and Bock have hired a certified public accountant to help them clear their daughter's name and force the IRS to recognize them as her parents. They have given her Ava's birth and death certificates and everything else they have to prove she was their daughter.
Once they meet the IRS' burden of proof requirements, the same will be required of the person who falsely claimed Ava as a dependent. The process, Bock said, may take weeks.
Struthers, who hadn't filed her taxes yet when Bock's was rejected, will also apply for an extension until the dispute is resolved.
"It's not about the money," Struthers said. "That just isn't right."