The Social Security Administration, which announced in April that it would stop trying to collect debts from the children of people who were allegedly overpaid benefits decades ago, has continued to demand such payments and now defends that practice in court documents.
After The Washington Post reported in April that the Treasury Department had confiscated $75 million in tax refunds due to about 400,000 Americans whose ancestors owed money to Social Security, the agency’s acting commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, said efforts to collect on those old debts would cease immediately.
But although some people whose refunds were seized were reimbursed in recent months, some of those same taxpayers have since received new demands from Social Security, asserting that the debts remain and seeking repayment.
In March, the U.S. government intercepted Mary Grice’s tax refunds from both the IRS and the state of Maryland. It turned out that after Grice’s father died in 1960, when she was 4, her mother got survivor benefits to help feed and clothe her five children. Social Security says it overpaid someone in the Grice family — it’s not sure who — in 1977. With Grice’s mother long since dead, the government came after Mary to pay the debt.
The Takoma Park woman, now 58, filed suit against Social Security, challenging the government’s right to take her money without notice to satisfy her mother’s debt. After The Post wrote about her case, the government returned Grice’s tax refunds to her. But in August, she received a new bill from Social Security, seeking the same $2,997 that the agency had refunded to her four months earlier.
“DID YOU FORGET?” the letter said, demanding that Grice “send us the full payment right away.”
The four other plaintiffs who have joined Grice in her federal lawsuit have also received letters explaining that although the government returned their confiscated tax refunds after Colvin said such collections would cease, “this refund does not eliminate your overpayment.”
Asked to explain the about-face, Social Security officials said they would respond only to written questions. Late Friday, four days after The Post provided questions, the agency issued this statement from spokesman Mark Hinkle: “We are finalizing our review of the Treasury offset program, but cannot discuss specifics due to the pending litigation.” The offset program is Treasury’s effort to collect on debts to Social Security and other agencies by confiscating Americans’ tax refunds.
The lawsuit, now pending in federal court in Greenbelt, argues that since 2011, the government has been illegally confiscating tax refunds from tens of thousands of people “to satisfy dubious claims of debts based on alleged overpayments made decades ago.” The suit says the children involved never received any payment from the government; in addition, Social Security collected the debts without having notified taxpayers that they owed anything.
In court papers, the agency says the government has a right to collect from children if their parents received benefits meant for the well-being of those children.
The government’s brief argues that “the issue is whether [the law] bars Social Security from recovering overpayments from individuals who received benefits through another individual on their behalf when they were children. The answer to that question is ‘no.’ ”
“Deep down, they believe it’s the right thing to go after children,” said Robert Vogel, the attorney for the taxpayers whose refunds were seized.
The agency’s announcement last spring that it would stop such collection efforts “was a smoke screen,” he said. “Their intention was to get the press off their backs and then go back to collecting their money. It’s just shocking that they believe that when someone turns 18, they automatically assume a crushing debt that was incurred by someone else.”
In Social Security’s briefs in the federal case, the agency argues that Congress gave the agency “broad rulemaking authority” to collect debts “as it sees fit,” without regard to how old a child was when benefits were given to a parent. The agency argues that collecting on such debts “is a significant component of ensuring the solvency of the Social Security trust fund.”
The notion that there is a difference between someone receiving benefits directly and receiving the benefit of government support through a parent is a “baseless distinction,” Social Security says in court papers.
“They are going after kids, and their briefs prove it,” Vogel said. “They’re asking the court to be the first court in the United States to force a child to pay a debt incurred by the parents. It’s really quite disgusting.”
Even after Daniel Asmus of Fillmore, Calif., sent letters reminding Social Security of Colvin’s announced freeze, the agency pushed ahead with its effort to collect a $2,094 debt that it says stems from overpayments of survivor’s benefits to Asmus’s long-deceased mother in the 1970s. Asmus’s father died when Asmus was 9.
In June, more than two months after the announced halt to collection efforts, Social Security ordered the state of California, which employs Asmus as a highway construction worker, to garnish $615 a month from his wages — about a quarter of his pay.
“If there were an overpayment when I was a child, I assure you my mother had no knowledge of it or would have gone without shoes herself in order to make sure it was given back,” Asmus wrote to Social Security. “Since the overpayment was not my fault, especially if it was made when I was a child and had no control over how the money was spent, and it was around 40 or more years ago, it would be unfair to collect from me now.”
The only response he got was a form letter demanding repayment and making no reference to the change in policy.
“We cannot make our house payment with them taking 25 percent of his income,” said Mary Asmus, Daniel’s wife. “That statement about not going back beyond 10 years was just a hoax to get the public off their back. I guess Social Security can do whatever they want to and no one can stop them.”
Despite the announced freeze, Social Security has continued to press Jessica Vela of San Diego for $16,888 that the government claims she owes for overpayments made to her mother in child support benefits when Vela was 1. Vela’s mother is still alive, and Social Security first tried to collect from her, but the mother fought the government in court and won. That’s when Social Security turned to the daughter.
Now 24 and a Navy veteran whose husband remains on active duty, Vela was a month away from delivering her second child in April when her income tax refund of $5,996.87 was seized by the Treasury Department this spring.
“They took our entire refund without prior notification by mail, carrier pigeon, smoke signal, anything,” she said. “We were hoping to buy a crib and everything else we needed for the baby with that money.”
Vela has repeatedly contacted Social Security to appeal the seizure, and she said that some Social Security employees at the offices she has visited told her that she was in the right, but in October she received a letter telling her that the agency would not review her case again.
Social Security officials told Vela to hire an attorney, but she said she has been unable to find one willing to invest the time necessary to press a case involving a relatively small amount.
“The government says they have no records they can show me about the debt, and obviously, I have no paperwork because I was in diapers when this occurred,” she said.