Feds: 9-year-old incurred debt 45 years ago

GALESBURG, Mich. (WOOD) — A Kalamazoo County man says the federal government is coming after him for a debt it claims he incurred when he was 9 years old.

Cote, a 53-year-old private investigator from Galesburg, said he now fears that that the $1,300 alleged debt will be deducted from his tax return.

The debt stems from Social Security funds that were disbursed to Cote’s mother after his father died of cancer in the 1960s. The Social Security Administration claims that too much money was dispensed for Cote and now, 45 years later, it is demanding that the funds be returned.

“They will seize any federal tax return,” said Cote, referencing a letter he received about the debt. “They will garnish wages and/or possibly face a federal lawsuit against me to obtain that money back.”

The letter Cote received several weeks ago wasn’t the first he heard of the debt. He says he was contacted 15 years ago and had his state tax return seized. He disputed the debt then and asked for a detailed explanation of what he owed. Cote said he never heard back and collection efforts apparently stopped until now.

“They told me to be patient,” Cote said of a Tuesday phone call with the office collecting the funds for the Social Security office. “That there was a government shutdown …  just be patient it’s going to come.”

“I have to wonder, is this really a legitimate bill?” Cote continued. “I want proof. But the only proof I’m getting is they’re taking money from me.”

Cote is not alone.

Collections began to make headlines this year after the federal government began calling in  old debts in response to legislation that allowed the practice. It was put in place as part of an agriculture bill called the Food Conservation and Energy Act, which was passed in 2008.

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After the issue gained publicity, the Social Security Administration said it was putting a “halt” on collections more than 10 years old.

“I have directed an immediate halt to further referrals under the Treasury Offset Program to recover debts owed to the agency that are 10 years old and older pending a thorough review of our responsibility and discretion under the current law,” said Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, in a written statement.

Cote and people like him, though, haven’t been let off the hook — at least not so far.

Cote’s 84-year-old mother, who would have received the alleged overpayment, is equally frustrated and confused by the bill.

“They want the money back from my son, which he never got a penny of it,” Jenny Guimond said in a phone interview from Boston. “It bothers me that they’re after my son now. Like he said, 45 years later.”

Cote says no matter what the decision is, he will try his hardest to fight paying the old debt.

“The system’s gone — it’s gone crazy,” Cote said. “I refuse to pay them because it’s not my debt.”

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