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Veteran, 85, is told he must repay $38K for wife's 22-year Social Security overpayments

By JON LENDER | The Hartford Courant | Published: September 20, 2019

HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Bill Small of Rocky Hill got a jolt this past March when the Social Security Administration (SSA) notified him in a letter that it had overpaid his wife, Bess, during two decades of disbursing her monthly benefit. And so, now that he and his wife are 85 years old and she has been diagnosed with dementia, the SSA is demanding that he repay a total of $38,192 on her behalf.

“You have no idea how this happened, when they tell you ‘we’ve been overpaying your wife for 22 years, and now we want you to pay us back,’ ” Small said.

The retired Air Force colonel, who during a 28-year career piloted multiengine military aircraft all over the world and served in Vietnam, says the government admits it made a mistake and that he and his wife of 63 years are blameless. He asked in June that the SSA waive its demand for repayment.

But on Wednesday, an SSA representative told him during a personal conference in Hartford that his request is being denied.

Now his last resort will be an appeal to an administrative judge, also in Hartford. That hearing is yet to be scheduled.

Small said he still hasn’t received an explanation of what specific error by the SSA resulted in the overpayment, as well how it happened and when it began. (He said he doesn’t know how long the overpayments were happening, but if they spanned the entire 22 years, they would have averaged around $145 a month to reach the $38,192 total.)

However, what’s been made clear to him recently (and again on Wednesday, during his meeting with a SSA representative at 960 Main St. in Hartford) is that even if such an overpayment isn’t a recipient’s fault, SSA still will order him or her to repay it — if the recipient has the means to do so. He said the government representative told him that this same thing has happened, in even greater overpayment amounts, to other people who were not to blame.

“To approve the waiver of an overpayment we must be able to determine that the individual is without fault in causing the overpayment, and repayment would cause an undue hardship,” Kevin Reino, an SSA public affairs specialist in the agency’s regional office in Boston, said in describing the SSA’s general policy.

Small said he and his wife meet the first criterion — it wasn’t their doing or their fault — but not the second. He said they own their home with no mortgage and have years of savings, but even though he has the means, he still doesn’t believe he should have to pay the $38,192 because “we didn’t make the error.”

Small was told Wednesday that the SSA’s position is that when it discovers such overpayment errors, it has a responsibility to protect the solvency of the national fund by recovering the money if possible.

Asked about that, Small — who served as executive officer for three major generals during his Air Force career that included bomber-refueling flights out of bases in Maine and Newfoundland — said he couldn’t explain his position further “except to repeat myself, to say the person who committed [the error] is responsible for it.”

Small contacted Government Watch in August about his situation, which he said could “absolutely” happen to anyone.

He provided copies of correspondence between him and the SSA, which addresses him by his given name of John W. Small. (His middle name is William, and he’s always been called “Bill” to distinguish him from his father who also was named John.) Small invited a reporter to go with him to his meeting at the Social Security office Wednesday. The SSA said The Courant could not listen to the meeting because of privacy laws, and provided the phone number for Reino in Boston.

Reino would not comment Thursday on Small’s statements about the SSA’s error concerning him and his wife, citing privacy laws.

When Reino was asked if his agency has any general statistics on how many cases like this it encounters every year across the country, he responded in an email that “this data is not readily available.”

Asked how long recipients are given to make repayment in cases like this, Reino said, “In general, we request overpayments be repaid within thirty-six months. However, the local office can work with people on a case-by-case basis if that timeframe would cause undue hardship.”

Small said that in his wife’s case, the government told him it intended to start withholding her $533 monthly benefit starting this year, and to resume those payments in 2025, but he had asked (and SSA agreed) that the payments not be discontinued until a final decision is made on his appeal.

After Small retired from the Air Force in 1983 he educated and qualified himself as a real estate appraiser, running his own business until he retired from that in 1996. Both he and his wife, who have a daughter, son and two grown granddaughters, began receiving regular Social Security retirement benefits at age 62.

Just like all other new Social Security benefits recipients, they were informed by letter how much they were entitled to, and that amount was direct deposited with their bank. There were periodic letters announcing adjustments to the amounts of their benefits, but Small said there was never any major fluctuation that would indicate an overpayment.

"I had no idea that the monthly amount sent to me was an overpayment,” he wrote in his June request for the government waiver. “I didn’t decide what payment we should get.

“My position is that she did not know she was overpaid. No contact from SSA was made for 22 years telling her that there was a problem. She did not cause the overpayment and is not responsible for the overpayment. I write this letter due to her having been diagnosed in 2018 as having dementia and therefore unable to understand any of this.”

jlender@courant.com

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