Your elderly mother receives a notice in the mail from the Social Security Administration (SSA). It claims that she has been paid too much in monthly benefits for years, and she has 30 days to return thousands of dollars…or else the SSA will cut off her monthly checks until the outstanding balance is recouped.

This is not a scam! The SSA mistakenly overpays billions of dollars in retirement, disability, survivor and spousal benefits every year and then attempts to collect that money. How this happens: Benefits may be miscalculated because the ­formulas are complex and/or the information the SSA has about you is wrong. There is no statute of limitations on how far back the SSA can go claiming overpayments, and you may owe the money even though the SSA made the mistake.

What to do if you get an SSA clawback notice like this in the mail…

Don’t ignore it. If you fail to respond within 30 days of the date of the overpayment notice, the SSA will start withholding the full amount of your benefits each month. The agency also can take you to civil court, have your IRS tax refund garnished, notify credit-reporting agencies of your delinquency and even assign a private-debt collection agency to collect the money from you.

Confirm the overpayment amount is correct. Check the amounts and the dates and any earnings or life changes that were not properly reported. To get help: Call the SSA Electronic Records Express Help Desk at 866-691-3061 or visit a local SSA office (

If you decide not to repay the full amount, file one of three requests. The SSA will not take any action to collect overpayments until your request is reviewed and decided upon…

Ask for a “reconsideration.” This forces the SSA to review your case again and explain to you why it believes you were overpaid. You can file this appeal through the mail, but you also are ­entitled to present evidence to support your case at an informal hearing with an SSA employee.

Request a waiver if you feel you should not have to return the overpayment money. To qualify for a waiver: You must prove that the overpayment was not your fault (e.g., you believed you reported all information to the SSA correctly or you were not told the reporting requirements)…and that you need your current income and other assets just to pay “ordinary and necessary living expenses.”

If either your reconsideration or waiver is denied: You can ask for a hearing before an administrative law judge. That may require retaining an attorney who specializes in Social Security cases.

Work out a payment plan. The SSA has shown flexibility in allowing recipients to pay back the money in installments.

Helpful resource: Find out detailed procedures for contesting ­overpayments at

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