I feel that you, acting Commissioner Kijakazi, really care about the people you serve. Kristin, a 69-year-old widow, received a bill from SSA completely out of the blue demanding that she repay $118,272 for alleged overpayment of reduced excess widow benefits — benefits she had never applied for or received.
Commissioner Kijakazi, I am sure you are not new to your agency’s practice of sending letters to the elderly demanding that they repay huge sums to social security without clear explanation and, in far too many cases, entirely due to mistakes made created by your agency. Your agency’s practice in this regard is so appalling that it must be investigated by the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection as the first act of the new Commissioner, Rohit Chopra. After all, Social Security is the largest or second largest financial asset of most Americans.
Commissioner Kijakazi, I ask you to read the cover letter sent to me by Kristin, a 69-year-old widow from New York, who in September, out of the blue, received a bill from Social Security demanding that she pay $118,272. in benefits for alleged overpayment of reduced excess widow benefits – benefits she never applied for and never received, as evident from her bank statements, which record all Social Security receipts.
I know quite a bit about social security rules and regulations. In 2015, I co-authored a New York Times
A month after Kristen’s husband passed away in 2015, she received a larger-than-expected check and immediately went to the Boulder, Co. office, where she lived at the time, and told staff that she had never filed for widowhood benefits and the deferred collection. of her widows until full retirement age to maximize their annual and lifetime value. According to Social Security staff, your agency has paperwork (which, by the way, they say they’re not authorized to hand over) documenting this encounter and Kristen’s insistence that she didn’t file for widowhood benefits and waited until full retirement age to get them. collect.
In addition, if indeed it was too high a widow’s benefit (it seems too small), the supplementary payment stopped immediately after her meeting at the local office in Boulder. When she reached full retirement age, she did what she said she would and applied for her full widow’s benefit. She then, appropriately, began to receive the combination of her own reduced pension benefit plus her excess widow’s benefit. The two contributed to the advantage of her full window.
Everything was fine until March 2020, when she started receiving one incomprehensible letter after another from your agency with minor monthly benefit adjustments. As noted, the Social Security letter demanding $118,272 refund arrived two months ago with a demand to either repay the amount immediately or stop her monthly benefit for the next 26 years!
The letter, which I researched, states, “We overpaid you because you chose not to receive a reduced widow’s benefit.” The second part of this sentence is correct. Kristen has opted not to receive reduced widow’s benefits. The first part is completely incorrect because she never received a reduced widow’s benefit. Your agency can verify this in minutes by looking at your own records or checking Kristen’s bank statements. But instead of doing your homework, you’ve abolished her monthly allowance as of this month. This has led to a bill from Medicare to pay its Part B premium.
Commissioner Kijakazi, I can say frankly that your agency was lucky that Kristen did not die on the spot from a stroke. If this happened to your mother, dare I say you would be beside yourself. But these mistakes in the social security system happen on a daily basis and terrorize millions of retirees who learn of them. Personally, I regularly hear about these cases. I have written about many of them over the years. I also tried to notify your office and managed to resolve the issues. Your senior staff is as concerned about this issue as I am and doing their best when they can. But the base system is a financial terror machine, which must be shut down until it is repaired.
Whether or not Social Security is right, which it certainly isn’t in Kristin’s situation, makes news in this way, via illegible and, far too often partially or completely inaccurate, letters with amounts that change from week to week and without one to call you to get a straight answer represents a cruel form of torture. I personally don’t blame you. You are new to the job. But you must end this practice. It’s definitely not something you want to be associated with. Nor should the Social Security Administration, which has done so much good for so many people for so long, be tainted by this disgrace.
I believe the agency is now trying to resolve Kristen’s situation and restore her benefits. But she’s been tortured long enough, that’s why I’m writing to you in public. Like most elderly widows, she depends on Social Security for her survival.
I intend to continue writing about Kristen’s case publicly until it is resolved. Your predecessors left you with a dilapidated computer system, which, unfortunately, engages in really bad deeds without human supervision. I realize you can’t fix everything overnight, but you can start. And you can start by setting up an office dedicated to handling these cases and staffed by technical experts who will answer the phone in no time. I am at your complete disposal if I can assist you in any way. I have a feeling that it is you, Acting Commissioner Kijakazi, the first social security director in a very long time who really cares about the people they serve.
Please contact me and I can put you in touch with Kristin.
Letter from Kristin
When I saw the long-awaited Social Security envelope in my building’s mailbox, I excitedly rushed into the elevator and tore open the large envelope as I went upstairs. Scanning quickly, I saw that it said something about an overpayment and also saw that the letter was actually a bill for the astronomical amount of $118,272! I suddenly began to experience something that my clients had often reported happening to them – I found myself hyperventilating for the first time in my life.
I am a 69 year old retired psychotherapist. I am a widow, diagnosed with bronchiectasis and MAC, a life-threatening antibiotic-resistant chronic infection that leaves one vulnerable to other deadly infections. Bronchiectasis is aggravated by stress. I’m stressed.
This whole story started in March 2020 when I received a letter from SSA saying that I would receive $424 less than the $2,473 I had received each month, as a correction to my account. They also demanded $4,011 in refund for what they believed they had overpaid me, all with no clear explanation. I appealed and a few months later that amount was changed every month from $424 to $345 less, again saying it was a correction. The amount they believed they had overpaid was changed from $4,011 to $669. This was better, but I still needed the $345 each month, or at least a reasonable explanation.
Over the next year, I called the SSA 800 number countless times, hoping for a meaningful response. I heard several conflicting stories from the 800 staffers who gave all sorts of reasons (including that my husband had been given too much!) but no answers as to which calculations led to these conclusions.
I finally called my local office here in New York this summer and the helpful staff there said they would contact an office called the Payment Center. The local office worker told me, after reviewing my file, that they suspected that SSA may have made a mistake that may have happened the month after my husband’s death, when SSA automatically started depositing early widow benefits into my account. . I was specifically told to wait until full retirement age for my widow’s benefits, as early benefits would result in them being severely reduced permanently. When I discovered the deposit, I walked into the local Colorado Social Security office where I lived and told them I didn’t want early widowhood benefits and would apply for them at the right age. Then they stopped those payments for a number of years until I reached FRA and applied for my full widow’s benefit.
After the call to my local office here in New York, I heard nothing for a few months until I received the disastrous bill from SSA on September 1. I had so hoped that the letter would contain the good news that they had discovered their mistake and the thousands of dollars they owed me would be deposited into my bank account and the original payments restored. Instead, I received a bill for $118,272 – more than 100% of all the benefits SSA had ever paid me. Apparently they think I don’t qualify for anything at all. Then I started the anti-anxiety medication.
And at this point I contacted Larry.
On October 1, they wrote that all my benefits would be suspended until 2037, when I’m 85 years old if I live that long, which isn’t looking too good right now. This month I got a direct bill from Medicare because I no longer receive Social Security benefits at all and they have to be paid like everyone else, right?
And I’m still waiting.
Laurence Kotlikoff is an economics professor at Boston University, author of “Money Magic” (forthcoming), and a regular columnist for The Hill.