The Social Security Administration has paused its misguided efforts to collect debts more than a decade old, including dunning children of the dead. Collection efforts should expire when the original beneficiary does.
The retreat came Monday following Washington Post reports that the government was seizing the state and federal tax refunds headed to about 400,000 people. The aim was to collect long past due overpayments of $714 million. That's ok. But going after adult children receiving benefits on their deceased parent's record is bureaucratic overkill.
Carolyn Colvin, the acting Social Security commissioner, called off the dogs Monday, "pending a thorough review of our responsibility and discretion under the current law to refer debt to the Treasury Department." Read between the lines and that means its unclear whether Social Security officials have the legal authority to collect from anyone other than the original beneficiary.
The collection effort began with one line in the 2008 Farm Bill that lifted the statute of limitations on money owed to the government for more than 10 years. The Treasury Department wrote rules allowing it to intercept tax refunds to settle the debts. It has scooped up $2 billion this year, including $75 million delinquent for more than a decade.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, raised strong objections. "The statute of limitations language didn't give the agency permission to collect debts where the debtor is deceased. It's not clear where that authority came in," he said.
The federal government is $17.5 trillion in debt, so it should aggressively go after what it's owed. But when a Social Security recipient dies, efforts to settle debts arising from errors in their record should also be put to rest.