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Social Security debt collection

Published: Monday, April 21, 2014 11:29 a.m. CDT

If the federal government overpaid someone in your family more than 30 years ago, should you be held responsible for the debt? 

And should the government have an indefinite amount of time to try to collect the overpayment?

Those questions are pending in the nation’s capital in light of revelations that the Social Security Administration was seizing state and federal tax refund checks to try to collect survivor benefits it says were mistakenly paid many years ago. 

One woman said her tax refunds this year were seized because of an overpayment made to someone in her family 37 years ago. The Social Security Administration never told her exactly who received the overpayment.

According to The Washington Post, which broke the story, the government was seizing tax refunds for an estimated 400,000 Americans whose relatives have old debts with the Social Security agency.

Amid a flurry of criticism, the Social Security Administration announced that it will suspend debt collection of payments more than 10 years old.

Payment beneficiaries have to be accountable for overpayments from the government, but the government has to be reasonable and use common sense. The agency is right to revisit its actions.

However, it shouldn’t take embarrassing media coverage and lawsuits for this step to take place.  Agencies should be able to apply common sense and fairness without a public firestorm.  And Congress needs to be careful about legislating one line in an unrelated bill that an agency then develops into something possibly beyond what Congress intended. 

In pursuing the old debts, the Social Security Administration and the Treasury Department draw their authority from one line in a farm bill enacted in 2008.  The language didn’t give the agency permission to collect debts where the debtor is deceased. It’s not clear where that authority came in. 

There’s a difference between collecting decades-old debt from the debtors and decades-old debt from their kids. I wrote to the Social Security Administration and the Treasury Department, seeking answers on what the government is doing here and why. Maybe the agencies have good reasons for their actions, but the public deserves an explanation.

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