The government wants me to return my son’s ‘leftover’ Social Security money

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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A few months ago I wrote about how amazed I was to discover that my 13-year-old daughter is eligible for Social Security, along with her 15-year-old sister and 17-year-old brother. They have since been receiving monthly checks in the amount of $616 each. Sad to say, my son has since turned 18 and his payments will cease when he graduates from high school this June.

But there is good news. I receive regular mail from the Social Security Administration (SSA) about all sorts of things. Lots of mail. I haven’t done the math, but if everyone on Social Security gets as much mail from SSA as I do, there’s a whole lot of trees being sacrificed to the effort. Mind you, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. I’ve never really understood this “save a tree” mantra my Social Security-supported kids have had drummed into them from preschool. Trees are a renewable resource, after all. But that’s another topic.

I’m pleased that SSA has taken the time to stay in constant touch. It’s really very considerate and, although I often don’t have any idea why they have written, I am grateful for the friendly gestures. I hope they aren’t upset that I haven’t been responding to all of their letters, particularly one I received the other day that has me totally baffled. I’m hoping someone might be able to help me understand.

The first line of the letter says, “We have decided that it would be best for JAMES HUFFMAN to have his checks sent to him.” Now “we” in that sentence is the SSA, I assume. You might think that “JAMES HUFFMAN” is me, but I suspect they are referring to my son, who also happens to be James Huffman, but with a different middle initial. The folks at SSA, bless them, have decided what is best for my son. It seems that my wife and I are relieved of that onerous responsibility, so many thanks to the full-service federal government.

But here’s the puzzling part. The letter goes on to say that “while you were JAMES HUFFMAN’s payee, you may have saved some money for him.” Now I assume that “you” in that sentence is me and that “JAMES HUFFMAN” is still my son. Did I save some of what I received as his payee? Well, I put it in his bank account as I had been instructed to do by a nice SSA person several months ago. In fact, I gave the friendly SSA person my son’s bank account information, but I guess the SSA thought it best for me and my son that the checks come directly to me. I’m sure they have really good reasons for now deciding that it is best to send the checks directly to him.

So, given that the money is, one way or another, going into his back account, I would say that I have not saved any of the money for him. What has he done with it? Has he spent it? I don’t think so, but he may have. It’s his bank account. If he hasn’t spent it, or some of it, does that mean it has been saved? Well, certainly not by me, but perhaps by him.

Why is the SSA asking me whether I saved some of the money? As it turns out, they want it back. “If you have [saved some money for him],” reads the letter, “you should return it to us …” They even enclosed a return envelope for my convenience. Now seriously, even if I had saved some of the money for my son, what’s the chance I’d return it to the federal government — particularly when I read recently that federal employees owe $1.03 billion in unpaid federal taxes?

This being the government, the letter does not end there. It goes on to list examples of what might count as saved money that needs to be returned — including “saved and invested benefits,” “interest earned from these savings and investments” and “money you have left over from any checks we sent you.” Money left over? This has got to be some sort of joke. Really, they want me to send them any leftover money. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but then I’ve never worked for the government.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.