WASHINGTON — The Social Security Administration, which said in April it would stop trying to collect debts from the children of people who were allegedly overpaid benefits decades ago, has continued to demand such payments and now defends that practice in court documents.
After the Washington Post reported in April that the Treasury Department had confiscated $75 million in tax refunds that were due to about 400,000 Americans whose ancestors owed money to Social Security, the agency’s acting commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, said efforts to collect on those old debts would cease immediately.
But although some people who had their refunds seized were reimbursed in recent months, some of those same taxpayers have since received new demands from Social Security, asserting that the debts remain and seeking repayment.
In March, the government intercepted Mary Grice’s tax refunds from both the IRS and the state of Maryland. It turned out that after Grice’s father died in 1960, when she was 4, her mother got survivor benefits for her five children.
Social Security says it overpaid someone in the Grice family — it’s not sure who — in 1977. With Grice’s mother dead, the government came after Mary to pay the debt.
The Takoma Park, Md., woman, now 58, filed suit against Social Security, challenging the government’s right to take her money without notice to satisfy her mother’s debt. After the Post wrote about her case, the government returned Grice’s tax refunds to her. But then in August, she received a new bill from Social Security, seeking the same $2,997 that the agency had refunded to her four months earlier: ‘‘Did you forget?’’ the letter said, demanding that Grice ‘‘send us the full payment right away.’’
Four other plaintiffs who joined Grice in her lawsuit also received letters explaining that although the government returned their confiscated tax refunds after the Washington Post’s article appeared in April, ‘‘this refund does not eliminate your overpayment.’’
Asked to explain the about-face, Social Security officials said they would respond only to written questions.
Four days after the Post provided questions, the agency issued this statement from spokesman Mark Hinkle: ‘‘We are finalizing our review of the Treasury offset program, but cannot discuss specifics due to the pending litigation.’’
The suit argues that the government since 2011 has been illegally confiscating tax refunds from tens of thousands of people ‘‘to satisfy dubious claims of debts based on alleged overpayments made decades ago.’’
The lawsuit says the children involved never received any payment from the government; in addition, Social Security collected the debts without having notified taxpayers that they owed anything.
In court papers, the agency says the government has a right to collect from children if parents got benefits meant for the well-being of those children.
The government’s brief argues that ‘‘The issue is whether [the law] bars Social Security from recovering overpayments from individuals who received benefits through another individual on their behalf when they were children. The answer to that question is ‘no.’ ”
‘‘Deep down, they believe it’s the right thing to go after children,’’ said Robert Vogel, the attorney for the taxpayers whose refunds were seized.
‘‘Their intention was to get the press off their backs and then go back to collecting their money. It’s just shocking that they believe that when someone turns 18, they automatically assume a crushing debt that was incurred by someone else,” he said.
In Social Security’s briefs in the federal case, the agency argues that Congress gave the agency ‘‘broad rulemaking authority’’ to collect debts ‘‘as it sees fit,’’ without regard to how old a child was when benefits were given to a parent.
The agency argues that collecting on such debts ‘‘is a significant component of ensuring the solvency of the Social Security trust fund.’’
That there is a difference between someone receiving benefits directly and receiving the benefit of government support through a parent is a ‘‘baseless distinction,’’ Social Security says in court papers.
‘‘They are going after kids, and their briefs prove it,’’ said Vogel. ‘‘They’re asking the court to be the first court in the United States to force a child to pay a debt incurred by the parents. It’s really quite disgusting.’’