Social Security cuts back collection of old debts

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – The Social Security Administration is suspending a program that allowed the government to seize the tax refunds of thousands of Americans.

In the event the Social Security Administration overpays a recipient’s benefits, or benefits that have not been earned, it can take years for Social Security officials to discover the mistake, sometimes many years.

If the overpayment is not paid back voluntarily, the U.S. Treasury Department can step in and deduct the excess benefits from a recipient’s income tax refund or the refund of a family member.

“I think it is grossly unfair,” says Deborah Fetto, who had more than $600 taken from her federal income tax refund to repay Social Security Survivor overpayments her father, Philip, received more than 40 years ago.

The elder Fetto started collecting the survivor benefits after Deborah’s mother died, in 1972, when Deborah was a teenager. Then four years ago, Philip Fetto died.

Last month, Deborah Fetto’s income tax refund came up more than $600 short, and a shocked Fetto says IRS officials told her it was for the Social Security overpayments

“Telling me they deducted $652.80 for a debt I owed Social Security. It’s like what? I don’t even get Social Security,” she said.

The Getzville resident got snagged in a government program to catch overpayments and potential fraud known as the Treasury Offset Program.

Until 2008 the program had a 10-year statute of limitations for getting back overpayments. Then six years ago, Congress removed the 10-year limit in a federal farm bill.

Buffalo attorney Chris Grover says the policy can, and does, lead to children being forced to pay up for excess benefits their parents received.

“Whose parents had an overpayment 10, 20, 30 to 50 years ago. In those circumstances these people might not even know that their parents were even getting a Social Security benefit,” he said.

Since the Treasury Offset Program was expanded, the government has identified more than 400,000 Americans who have collected more than $714 million in Social Security overpayments.

Washington, D.C. attorney Robert Vogel is suing the government to stop these collections charging, “The government should not be in the business of trying to collect 30-year-old debts from people. There is no way that people have any reason to keep their records for that long.”

Monday, the Social Security Administration’s acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin suspended the expanded collections, ordering “an immediate halt to further referrals under the Treasury Offset Program to recover debts owed the agency that are 10 years old and older.”

Deborah Fetto is hoping the move will help get her money back.

“I have paid my dues, and to have somebody just take it out for something I did not do, I knew nothing about, I just don’t think it is the right thing to do,” she says.

The Social Security Administration is reviewing the Treasury Offset Program, and right now, officials are only saying if you believe you have been incorrectly assessed with an overpayment, request an explanation or try to resolve the overpayment.

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