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A ‘bad calculation’

When the SSA started reducing Estrada’s monthly retirement benefits, she turned to Social Security disability attorney Joe Fraulob, who took on her case pro bono.

Fraulob told ABC10: “This is typical for Social Security. They typically will send out notices that you can't really decipher very well and they're bad about calculations.”

Per the ABC10 report, Estrada was already collecting retirement benefits when her husband passed away. As a widow, she would have become eligible to collect survivor benefits (based on her deceased husband’s income) instead of her retirement benefits — if the survivor benefits paid a higher monthly sum.

Retirement and survivor benefits cannot be combined or taken at the same time. Maximizing benefits, in this case, would require some calculations.

According to Fraulob, the SSA miscalculated the difference between Estrada’s deceased husband’s benefits and her own benefits, which were higher. This led to her being paid $300 extra per month for about 10 years.

“I’ve been totally consumed by this,” Estrada said after receiving her overpayment notice. Like many other U.S. seniors, she relies on her monthly Social Security check to cover her living costs.

As Fraulob put it: “Most people that are on Social Security, for whatever reason, are pretty much just barely getting by.”

A shock Social Security repayment notice doesn’t have to end in your financial ruin. As Estrada discovered, there are ways to successfully appeal, reduce and overturn Social Security overpayment notices.

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Appealing an SSA overpayment

If you receive an overpayment notice from the SSA that you think is inaccurate or unfair, you can submit an appeal online or by mail.

Make sure to file your appeal within 30 days (plus five mail days from the date of the notice) and have all of your medical information and supporting documents (including forms, legal documents, and written statements) ready before requesting a repayment consideration.

Following harsh criticism of its overpayment collection procedures, the SSA recently announced steps to help beneficiaries like Estrada by removing the burden of proof of fault for the overpayment and making it easier for people to request a waiver.

If the overpayment notice is valid but you are unable to pay the SSA back within their required time period, you can ask to repay your debt in smaller and more manageable monthly payments.

The SSA has expanded its repayment plan duration from 36 to 60 months, giving people two extra years to pay back what they owe. To qualify, Social Security beneficiaries would need to provide a verbal summary of their income, resources and expenses.

At the end of fiscal year 2023 (Oct. 1, 2022 to Sept. 30, 2023), the SSA reported $23 billion of overpayments still uncollected. With a legal obligation to recover the unpaid benefits, the government agency sends overpayment notices to about one million Americans every year — but if you can’t pay your entire debt up front, seeking a waiver or a repayment plan can help to ease that financial burden.

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Bethan Moorcraft is a reporter for Moneywise with experience in news editing and business reporting across international markets.

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