Social security says that I owe them money for a mistake they made, what can I do?

A fellow caregiver asked...

I've had trouble with the social security dept. I am a 71 yrs. old female, a widow,and in poor health. I paid into s.s. from age 15, off and on. I also worked for the Federal Govt. and paid into a civil service pension. After my husband died, I applied for s.s. disability and was told I couldn't get it since I was getting widows' benefits and a disability pymt. also from civil service. They said Pres. Reagan and Congress passed a "Windfall Elimination Act" or 'double-dipping' law whereby federal workers could not collect from both s.s. and civil pension; EVENTHOUGH WE PAID INTO BOTH BY WORKING FOR THE GOVT. AND HAD OUTSIDE JOBS WHERE WE PAID INTO S.S.. Well,over the years someone in s.s., upon reviewing my case, sent me a letter saying I would receive 35.00 then later on another letter saying 96.00, then the last letter said 210.00. All these amounts came AFTER s.s. reviewed my 'case' each time! Now they're saying that "THEY MADE A MISTAKE" and I owe them AND must repay s.s. 8,000.00, which I don't have. I don't have any assets. I've gone through all the processes of waiver request, etc., which were denied because I receive a Govt. pension. I am waiting for a hearing before a judge, but in the meantime, I am to repay this -their- mistake for the next 72 months @ 111.00 per month; which I can ill afford. A friend suggested I apply for widows' veteran benefitsto help me with my lost income from s.s.. I'm so afraid that s.s. will take that and my small income tax refund and any other benefits I might be entitled to. Can you give me any help or advice? I'd appreciate it. Thank you.

Expert Answer

Barbara Steinberg is the CEO and founder of BLS Eldercare Financial Solutions, which specializes in helping families pay for long-term care for their loved ones. A registered financial gerontologist, she speaks regularly on the topic of paying for long-term care and is a financial expert for

Not surprisingly, the government rules for receiving both a civil service disability/retirement pension and Social Security benefits are complicated. There are two rules that can apply to your situation. One is the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) that applies if you are receiving a pension based on your own years of service or disability. Under WEP, you are entitled to at least a minimum Social Security benefit. The other rule is the Government Pension Offset Provision (GPO) that applies if you are receiving widow's benefits. In this case, your Social Security benefit is reduced by 2/3 of your civil service pension. For example, if your civil service widow's pension is $600/mo, your Social Security is reduced by $400/mo. If your Social Security is less than $400, you will not get Social Security.

Without knowing the actual amounts that you receive, I cannot determine if you are entitled to a Social Security benefit. You should find an advocate who can help you navigate the system.

You asked about veterans benefits for widows. If your husband served at least 90 days on active duty and 1 day during wartime, you may be eligible for a widow's pension. There are 3 levels of benefits starting at $661/mo and going up to $1,056/mo. Eligibility is determined by your needs, e.g. are you housebound or do you require assistance from someone else?, and your income. If your income is below $661, you can get a pension that will make up the difference. If you are housebound or need assistance, you may be eligible for more money. Receiving this benefit will not affect your other income, including Social Security.