Denise Woods drives to and from Georgia strip malls, truck stops and parking lots looking for a safe place to sleep each night — with everything she owns jammed into her car’s back seat.
“It’s scary. You just don’t know what each day is going to bring,” she said. “This shouldn’t be life for anybody.”
Woods told WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News she was forced to live out of her car after receiving notice she had been overpaid Social Security benefits by an eye-watering $57,968.
When Woods — who was claiming disability benefits because of her lupus and congestive heart failure — couldn’t pay that huge sum back, the Social Security Administration (SSA) said it would withhold her entire monthly check of $2,048 until February 2026, when the debt would be repaid.
Sadly, Woods is not alone in being forced out of her home because of a benefits blunder. According to an extensive WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News investigation, others have suffered a similar fate and at least 400 families have gotten demand letters from the SSA asking them to pay back thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.
The SSA’s overpayment problem
In the fiscal year 2023 (Oct. 1, 2022 to Sept. 30, 2023), the SSA recovered over $4.9 billion in overpayments, but it ended the year with $23 billion of overpayments still uncollected.
According to KFF Health News, the agency has admitted in the past that many overpayments were the result of errors by the government rather than the people — often elderly, poor or disabled — receiving the extra money.
Those getting Social Security benefits typically spend their checks on critical living expenses and health care. They’re not stashing it away to cover unexpected four- or five-figure repayment bills from the SSA.
For some, the repayment burden is life-altering. As part of its probe into the matter, WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News spoke with Nicole Eberhart at an extended-stay hotel, where the legally-blind mom is now living after losing her $1,700 monthly disability check from the SSA due to overpayments.
“I was using that money to actually pay for the apartment we were living in,” she told consumer investigator Justin Gray, who has been digging into the overpayments issue for three years.
As a result of the months-long investigation in partnership in KFF Health News, SSA Acting Commissioner Dr. Kilolo Kijakazi said in Oct. 2023 that she plans on “putting together a team to review overpayment policies and procedures to further improve how we serve our customers.”
In the meantime, here’s what you can do if you receive a dreaded repayment notice in the post.
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Paying back benefits
As of December 2023, there were 67 million Americans receiving Social Security benefits. Of that total, over 8.5 million Americans were claiming disability insurance from the SSA, receiving an average monthly benefit of $1,395, according to federal data.
With numbers like that, it is only natural that mistakes can and do fall through the cracks — but the SSA does have official procedures in place to resolve payment issues.
“Benefits are overpaid when we can’t accurately calculate your benefit amount because our information is wrong or incomplete,” the SSA explains online. “It can happen if you don’t share updates with us about what’s changed in your life, like your ability to work, living situation, marital status or income.”
If you receive a letter from the SSA which says you got more money than you should have, you have at least 30 days (plus five mail days from the date of the notice) to pay back the full amount. If you fail to do so within that time frame, the SSA will start collection of the overpayment — potentially by reducing or halting Social Security monthly benefits, or garnishing wages and federal tax refunds — unless you submit a timely request for a waiver or reconsideration.
How to reduce or appeal your repayment
A shock Social Security repayment notice doesn’t have to end in your financial ruin. There are ways to request help from the SSA.
If you receive a valid overpayment notice but are unable to pay the SSA back within 30 days, you can request to repay your debt in smaller and more manageable monthly payments.
If you don’t agree you’ve been overpaid or the overpayment amount is incorrect, you can submit an appeal online or by mail. Make sure you have all of your medical information and supporting documents (including forms, legal documents, and written statements) ready before requesting a repayment consideration.
You can also ask the SSA to waive your repayment if you can’t afford it and feel the error wasn’t your fault, or if you think the overpayment is unfair for another reason. Again, the SSA may ask to see evidence of your income and expenses before they agree to waive your debt.
Receiving any type of payment demand can be scary — especially if you’re not expecting it — but the worst thing you can do is run from it. It is always worth contacting your collector to see if you can come up with a repayment plan that works for you and exploring other ways to improve your situation.
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This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.