Social Security Sends Erroneous Overpayment Notice in Broken English

My mom called me the other day. From the tone of her voice, I knew instantly that something was wrong. I hate that feeling.

She had received a notice from the Social Security Administration. According to the SSA, they had overpaid her $5,657.00 in retirement benefits. Here’s what the letter said in part:

We are writing to give you new information about the retirement benefits which you receive on this Social Security record. In the rest of this letter, we will tell you:

* How we paid you $5,657.00 too much in benefits; and

* What to do if you think we are wrong about the overpayment.

The letter than demanded payment of the $5,657.00 in 30 days.  If she failed to pay within that time, SSA would “hold back [her] full benefit starting with the payment you would normally receive about January 8, 2014.”  Have a nice day.

My mom was sure it was a mistake.  Nevertheless, she was understandably shaken by the thought of doing battle with the Social Security Administration over such a large amount of money.

English as a Second Language

My mom taught ESL in public schools for as long as I can remember.  Even in retirement she serves as a substitute teacher several times a week. Perhaps that’s why she was aghast at the English, or lack thereof, in the notice.  She read me a few examples and then sent me a copy of the letter. Here are a few oddly worded phrases that stood out to me, along with typos and grammatical errors:

  • “You were not due those benefits because your benefits on this record was more.”
  • “The people in any Social Security office will be glad to help. . . .”
  • “So you are overpaid $5718.00 on the other record which we put on this record because you receive paymenton this record.”

As confirmed by an SSA employee, the letter is computer generated.  My guess is that the system was coded, at least in part, by those who could benefit from my mom’s ESL class.  There’s no issue with that, of course, but you would think that somebody at SSA who speaks English as a first language would review the form letters before they are mass mailed to retirees.

The Good News

At my urging, my mom called the SSA office in response to the letter.  They immediately told her to ignore the letter.  It was as if the Social Security Administration was aware that notices like these have been sent out in error.  They are reviewing the file and will contact my mom when they complete their review.

Recent news reports suggest that SSA has overpaid benefits to the tune of more than $1 billion.  Much of these overpayments, however, have been for disability benefits, not retirement.  Regardless, if you or somebody you know receives a “Notice of Change in Benefits” letter, don’t despair.  A phone call might be all it takes to get the matter resolved.

If it takes more, you can get information on appealing an overpayment notice from this SSA article on your appeal rights (pdf).

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