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Millions of Social Security recipients may have to return overpayments

Social Security recipients across the country are learning the government overpaid their benefits in recent years.
Posted at 7:22 AM, Oct 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-09 07:22:09-04

Millions of Americans rely on Social Security payments to cover monthly expenses, but some recipients in recent months have been shocked to learn they were overpaid and now owe money back to the Social Security Administration. 

Barb Marshall is among them. The recently retired widow hoped for a comfortable retirement, tending the flowers at her country home. But those retirement dreams were shattered when she received a letter a few weeks ago.

"It told me I owe them $3,362," she said.

She has to repay the money through no fault of her own. The letter explained that the agency is reducing her benefits since she receives a widow stipend and a small government pension for school library work. It says an audit found she was accidentally overpaid.

"My mouth dropped," she said, "and I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"

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Why this is happening

We asked the Social Security Administration to look into Marshall's case and explain how this happens and how many people are affected. The SSA sent us a statement, saying, "Agency employees work hard to pay the right person the right amount at the right time, and payment accuracy rates remain high."

It says only about a half percent of payments are overpayments.

But the number is higher, 8%, for the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI), which also includes people with disabilities and older adults who have little or no income. That adds up to several million recipients.

As to why these overpayments happen, the agency explains it can happen if you don't share important life updates, such as:

- Your ability to work

- Your living situation

- Your marital status

- Your income

Danny Karon, the attorney behind the platform Your Lovable Lawyer,says by the time you realize there was a mistake, it is too late to correct it simply.

"It seems that people are going to find out if and when they get the letter, and by that time, it's scramble and catch-up mode," he said.

What you can do

We asked him what you could do if you receive this letter.

"One possible solution is that you can petition to pay a smaller amount," he said, "but to do that, there's a PDF of an eight-page letter, which is not easy to suffer through."

Or, he says, ask the agency to waive repayment with a 10-page document.

"They make your 1099 forms look like a game of tic-tac-toe," he said. "I mean, they're really, really tough."

The SSA says it's working to improve its services, including overpayment prevention.

It also says in its release that the agency's acting commissioner is "putting together a team to review our overpayment policies and procedures to further improve how we serve our customers."

So what can you do to keep this from happening? Karon says to be proactive by always reporting life changes, though that is not always easy.

Social Security is now examining Marshall's case, though in the meantime, she has no idea how she will repay the $3,000 she owes.

"With everything more expensive these days," she said, "it's going to be hard to pay it back."

She says it's unfair that people who worked hard all their lives are now told they must pay back the government for something they don't understand.