This is among the worst Social Security horror stories I’ve encountered in years of writing about Social Security. Everyone thinks Social Security is our country’s finest public policy with superbly dedicated and fully trained staff. That ‘s until they get a bill in the mail, often massive, to repay Social Security for a mistake Social Security made years in the past.
Roy Farmer of Grand Rapids Michigan has Cerebral Palsy. He’s 32. In 2019, out of the blue, he received a clawback letter from Social Security demanding he repay $4902 that his mother received back when he was 11. Roy has spent what is now over three years appealing this judgement. He’s been denied twice? Why? Because they need/want/can’t wait to clawback someone and his mother is deceased. Also, even though Social Security’s own staff find this outrageous, Roy isn’t living on the street. So, well, he can pay up and we can hound him until he does! What fun!
I asked Roy to describe in his own words what happened and is still happening. Please read his response below. Also, Terry Savage, the superb, nationally syndicated personal finance columnist, and I are collecting Social Security horror stories. If you have one, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll add it to our growing list at larrykotlikoff.substack.com. That’s my newsletter. Feel free to subscribe. it’s free.
Here’s Roy’s email.
I currently find myself embattled with the Social Security Administration as they seek to reclaim a debt that I believe should not be mine to pay. I am a 32-year-old man mildly afflicted by Cerebral Palsy. In my younger years, from birth through approximately seven years old, I underwent extensive physical therapy, and a number of surgeries to allow me to live in adulthood more or less uninhibited by my condition. This has allowed me to live a productive life with few limitations. I have never myself claimed social security or disability benefits.
On September 8th, 2021 I was extremely surprised to learn that a letter was received at my childhood address, which I had not lived at or claimed as a primary residence for over a decade. It was addressed for both my deceased mother, and myself from the Social Security Administration. This letter stated that I owed $4902.00 in overpayment for SSI benefits. I originally believed this to be a case of identity theft or phishing, as my mother had passed away in 2019, and I myself had never to my knowledge received or claimed benefits. I contacted my local office in Grand Rapids, MI, and learned to my surprise that it was in fact legitimate. In explaining my situation, the very kind representative assured me that this must have been an error in some way. They were seeking money paid to my mother as a representative payee paid between March 2002 and January 2003, placing me between 11 and 12 years old. When I explained that my mother was now deceased, and I had never even been aware of having received benefits at any point in my life, I was directed to fill out a waiver request form. I submitted this form as requested immediately. Over the phone, and on this form, I confirmed that my current address was on file (even though I have always kept updated with both the Secretary of State and the Selective Service System).
On October 31st, 2022 I was informed that my waiver request had been denied, on the ground of not meeting both listed requirements for waiver.
1. That it was not my fault I got too much social security money
2. That paying back would mean I could not pay essential bills, or would be unfair for some other reason.
They also outlined three tests that they use to decide fault in the situation.
1. That [I] made an incorrect statement which I knew or should have known was incorrect.
2. That [I] failed to give timely information which I knew or should have known was important related to the overpayment.
3. That [I] accepted payments which [I] knew or could have been expected to know were incorrect.
Even though they responded in writing stating that they understood I was a child when this overpayment occurred, and that payment was made to my parent as a representative payee who was in control of payments, they still argue it to be my responsibility to pay back.
I was granted the opportunity to appeal, and given an appointment with Karen Shepherd of the Cadillac, MI SSA office on November 18th, 2022. Due to severe winter weather, we were not able to meet in person, but Karen met with me over the phone, explaining that the SSA considered this debt mine, as it had been reported as used for my care. I was not told the reason for this overpayment even existing. Karen was sympathetic, and offered to assist with my asking again for a waiver provided I give her an extensive list of financial records including proof of income, pay stubs, bank records, and anything else I thought might help. I provided this within the established window, with delivery of a nearly 1lb package of documents on December 15th, 2022. I contacted them on February 9th, 2023, when I told it was still being worked on by Karen. I was told the same again on April 6th, 2023. Her demeanor had left me hopeful for positive outcome, but I began to worry. I was dismayed to learn on April 14th, 2023 that they were unwilling to approve my appeal.
I was granted another meeting in the Cadillac, MI office, which is now set to take place on April 28th with a gentleman named Adam. So, I have not been told why they believe there was an overpayment, nor how an 11-year-old child could be held responsible for payment made to his parent 20 years after the fact. I had no consent, nor culpability in the situation, nor way to personally prevent it. They claim it to be my responsibility. This has left me completely unsure what to do next.