April 14, 2014

Paying for the Sins of the Father

The Social Security Administration is seizing tax refunds to pay for the “debts” of taxpayers’ parents.

With the federal government at $17 trillion in debt and counting, its thirst for revenue is strong. But even increasing tax rates on wealthy taxpayers, slapping fees on those who don’t voluntarily purchase health insurance, or using any of the myriad other ways the federal government extracts dollars from Americans’ wallets isn’t enough, and a recent development underscores just to what lengths Uncle Sam will go to enable itself – particularly the Social Security Administration.

The Washington Post detailed the story of Mary Grice, whose newly found minor notoriety arises from the SSA’s contention that her deceased mother was overpaid Social Security survivor’s benefits in 1977. To recoup that “debt,” the federal government intercepted Grice’s 2014 federal and state tax refunds, to the tune of $4,462.

More curious is the fact that Mary Grice was chosen among the three surviving children because they could verify she had income and they knew her address – she works for the Food and Drug Administration.

But the very concept of using the power of the Internal Revenue Service to withhold refunds from those whose parents incurred debt years ago is troubling, even if it’s now “legal.” In 2011, a little-noticed change in a farm bill ended the government’s 10-year statute of limitations on collecting such “debt” and since then they’ve recouped $424 million that was more than a decade old – much of it through the same confiscation of tax refunds like Grice’s.

Sadly, while Grice fought back and retained a pro bono attorney to recover her loss, many others who owe less money have simply shrugged their shoulders and figured it wasn’t worth the effort to fight over a few hundred dollars. Not that it would be an easy case to win – most people don’t keep their records for a decade and even the SSA admitted in Grice’s case they have no records to explain why or when her mother was overpaid $2,996. The SSA added that they tried to contact Grice about the overpayment, but at an address unused for decades. Yet the SSA has sent annual updates to her current address. Grice has succeeded in getting the remaining $1,466 of her refunds, but is still seeking restitution.

Strangely, the Federal Trade Commission states that descendants of the deceased “typically” do not have to pay the debts of an estate over and above its assets. But these aren’t typical times, and we certainly aren’t dealing with a typical republic that’s for the people.

> Update: The Social Security Administration announced Monday that it is discontinuing the effort to collect past “debts,” and it will return to the previous 10-year limit on such efforts. Pending further review, of course.

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