Just last week, we received a letter from the Social Security Administration letting us know that we proved our case, and we do not have to pay back Ben's past Social Security Income. This was incredible news and lifted a huge amount of stress off of us.
It all started over 18 months ago when we received a letter cancelling Ben's SSI payments. Here is what I learned along the way and if one person learns from our mistakes and is able to avoid some of the frustration we faced, I will be pleased. I did not add any specifics because they may change or be different for your case. *
Know the requirements - SSA has very specific requirements about what makes a person qualify for Supplemental Security Income. It may all be found online. Know what these requirements are, determine if you meet them and be able to backup everything that proves that you qualify. Not knowing will only bite you in the butt later.
Lawyering Up - If you want an attorney to help you resolve a case on appeal, good luck finding one that will take your case. I called dozens. There is no money to be earned by an attorney at this point, so no one does it. If you are going to use an attorney to help with Social Security benefits, it needs to be on the front end.
Eventually a paralegal at a non-profit legal advocacy group acted as a consultant for me. She answered questions and helped direct me to the correct forms and kept me on track with the process.
1st of the month - Your bank balance on the 1st of every month is checked electronically and reported to SSA. If it is over a certain amount, this may count against you. It does not matter if you get paid on the 1st of the month and then it all disappears by the 2nd to pay for bills electronically. They do not care how it was used or if it was used 24 hours later to pay bills.
Explain all cash deposits. In one of our final meetings with the SSA staff member, she told us that we had deposits made into our account that were unjustified. When asked for the amounts, I knew instantly they were our tax refund checks and loan checks from our home equity loan to pay for unexpected auto or home repairs. According to the staff member, neither of these would count against us in SSA. I was able to provide bank statements to show any direct deposits from the Department of Treasury. In one case when a paper check was mailed to us, I tracked down a copy of the deposited treasury check.
Keep track of your vehicles. SSA has very strict rules about the number of vehicles owned - keep records of sold vehicles or ones totalled in an accident. Be sure that SSA has accurate records of ownership so that you do not get penalized for a car you no longer own. I actually showed police accident reports and insurance records to prove that a car had been totalled.
Be willing to open every piece of personal financial information to SSA. I mean everything - from telephone and cable bills to food and gas costs. In the appeal process, I was asked to complete charts about every single dollar we spent and then provide copies or receipts for each item.
IRA distributions are taken into consideration. When Ryan left his job four years ago, he had $211 in a company IRA. We moved it to a Roth IRA through a financial institution, never even seeing or touching the money. This became an issue and we had to show that we did not cash out the IRA and use it as income. I had to prove this particular incident twice.
Understand that SSA is understaffed and overworked. I thought that if I supplied SSA with every piece of information they requested, they would see that we were following procedure and realize that we were in compliance with their rules.
I spent long hours and days gathering information they needed. I hand-delivered envelopes of bank statements, copies of bills and credit card statements. All of these items were lost. It was explained to me that sometimes when a large packet is received and someone has to stand there and scan it in, it does not happen. My packets are sitting at the bottom of someone's "To Do Someday" pile.
Document everything. Record phone calls, meetings and annual reviews. You will have to check to see what is legal to do, but at the very least, keep notes of meetings and send a copy to your SSA file. At this final meeting, I brought a large file box with everything in it.
I was not as diligent as I am telling you to be here because this is in hindsight. If I had known what we would have faced in 2013, I would have done all that I am telling you to do here. I did not have notes from our annual review meetings.
Certified Mail. I sent endless packets to SSA, giving them everything they requested. In the end, it seemed that some of my papers never made it anywhere except the bottom of someone's pile or in the circular bin. Sometimes I used certified mail requiring a signature and other times I dropped it off directly at the office, and took a photo of the security guard taking it from me. I recommend sending it certified mail, signature guaranteed, keeping photos or copies of everything you sent.
Give Up or Get Help. After 18 months of fighting this on my own, I was ready to give up and set up a payment plan of $25 a month for a very, very long time. Luckily, my husband asked if he could attend the personal conference that was setup to review the case. When we went into the meeting, he explained the same issues I had gone over so many times, but I was so emotionally drained from the experience, I would have been a puddle of tears or a raging lunatic. He, too was emotional, but he kept it in check long enough to explain the inconsistency in SSA's procedures with us - proving to this staff member that this was not our fault.
Taking It All the Way. It has been a long haul, but we proved our case. It took hours of phone calls, research, computer work and meetings. The stress and anguish Ryan and I both felt over this was terrible. In the end, I just wanted it to be over, even if it meant paying it back over a long time. I could not go on arguing with different SSA representatives, explaining our case again and then providing paperwork that was never reviewed. At the last meeting, I was so upset that my paperwork had been lost that I had a very hard time moving on to anything else. I was so angry that so many hours of work was for nothing.
Find Someone and Make a Connection. In the end, the ONLY reason that this was resolved is because: it was not our fault, we did not have the funds to pay it back and most importantly, we were assigned a caseworker who took us seriously. If not for her diligence in the matter, we would still be fighting or had given up. She listened to Ryan's arguments, researched them from her end and found that what we were saying was true.
* My explanations above are from what I experienced. I do not list any specific requirements because this should in no way be used to see if you would qualify for SSI. SSI is a complicated process and only SSA representatives can give you specific information. This is only to give you assistance in planning for the SSI process and know what questions to ask if you find yourself in a similar experience.