Back in May, Larry Moore of Toledo, Ohio, received a letter in the mail from the Social Security Administration.
His wife, Lydia, saw the look on his face as he read it. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” Larry replied. The letter informed Moore that on the day he married Lydia in 1999, he became ineligible for the monthly Social Security disability payment he’d been receiving since 1973. This meant that he had improperly received $105,240 from Social Security over the last seventeen years. Thus, the letter said, his disability payments were being immediately terminated.
And then came the funny part. The letter said, “You should refund this overpayment of $105,240.00 within 30 days. Please make your check or money order payable to Social Security Administration, and send it to us in the enclosed envelope.”
Moore, who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, told me, “You almost want to laugh and then you want to cry and then you realize you’ve just been presented a bill for $105,000. There’s not a situation, unless I win the lottery, where I will ever be able to pay even a small percentage of that.”
The moral of the story: If you’re disabled and drawing Social Security and you want to get married, watch out for the booby traps.
Moore had been receiving about $700 a month in Disabled Adult Child payments, a program that allows people disabled before adulthood to draw from their parents’ Social Security accounts. But buried in the regulations is a provision that says these payments end when the recipient gets married, unless they marry certain other Social Security recipients.
Moore had never informed the Social Security Administration that he was married because he didn’t know about that provision. About nine years ago, he explained, he supplied SSA with a batch of documents for an eligibility review, which included a tax return showing him as married and his marriage certificate. But he remained eligible.
This isn’t the only way Social Security penalizes disabled people who want to get married. People receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments get a maximum of $733 a month. But the maximum for a married couple when both receive SSI is $1,100. That means each already broke person gets docked $183 a month if they legally marry.
And no, they can’t game the system by living in sin. If the Social Security people determine that two people receiving SSI are sharing a bed, bank account, mortgage, etc., they can consider them as married and dock them anyway.
Moore describes himself as a very happily married man. “Best decision I ever made.” But he says he might never have proposed, had he known about the marriage penalty beforehand.
Moore will have pay Social Security back. It’s just a matter of how much and how often. He’s retained an attorney to help with all that. Meanwhile, he managed to secure part time work as a proofreader to replace some of his lost income.
I tried to find someone at SSA to explain to me how it could take seventeen years to discover someone is ineligible. Is that common? Isn’t there any kind of statute of limitations here? Nobody responded.
Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago. He blogs at Smart Ass Cripple, "expressing pain through sarcasm since 2010."