The Social Security Administration announced Monday it is suspending a controversial program that goes after adult children of deceased taxpayers who the government claims were recipients of overpayments more than a decade ago.
Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin said she has directed an immediate halt to the three-year-old program while the agency does a review. The controversial program seized tax refunds in an effort to recoup the funds.
The move to stop the program came after many of the recipients and members of Congress complained to the federal agency.
"While this policy of seizing tax refunds to repay decades-old Social Security overpayments might be allowed under the law, it is entirely unjust," Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said in a letter to Colvin.
The program was authorized by a 2008 change in the law that allows Social Security and other federal agencies to use a Treasury program to seize federal payments to recoup debts that are more than 10 years old. Previously, there was a 10-year limit on using the program.
In most cases, the seizures are done through tax refunds.
The change was tucked into the 2008 farm bill -- but trying to track down which lawmaker added in the one line that lifted the 10-year statute hasn't been easy. And, not surprisingly, Washington lawmakers haven't been eager to step up to the plate and take the blame.
Leslie Paige, vice president of policy and communications at Citizens Against Government Waste, says it's a common problem in Congress.
"Lawmakers try to sneak in these one or two lines into gigantic legislative packages," Paige told FoxNews.com. "It's a dirty little secret. Members of Congress don't know what they are voting on most of the time."
Paige said the "unintended consequences" of these bills are felt hardest on Americans often left powerless to fight the federal government.
"All [lawmakers] care about is ‘Did my pork, my earmark, my little provision get into this gigantic mess of a bill?'" she said.
Following Colvin's announcement Monday, Boxer said in a statement: "I am grateful that the Social Security Administration has chosen not to penalize innocent Americans while the agency determines a fair path forward on how to handle past errors."
Mikulski added, "Garnishing these refunds to collect overpayments incurred through no fault of their own and based on decades-old errors is a policy that must not continue."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, praised the Social Security Administration for suspending the debt collection but continued to raise questions Monday about how this started.
"It's not clear where that authority came in. There's a difference between collecting decades-old debt from the debtors and decades-old debt from their kids," he said.
The Social Security Administration says it has identified about 400,000 people with old debts. They owe a total of $714 million.
So far, the agency says it has collected $55 million.
Colvin said she was suspending the program "pending a thorough review of our responsibility and discretion under the current law to refer debt to the Treasury Department."
"If any Social Security or Supplemental Security Income beneficiary believes they have been incorrectly assessed with an overpayment under this program, I encourage them to request an explanation or seek options to resolve the overpayment," Colvin said.
The Washington Post first reported on the program.
There are several scenarios in which people may have received overpayments as children. For example, when a parent of a minor child dies, the child may be eligible for survivor's benefits, which are typically sent to the surviving parent or guardian.
If there was an overpayment made on behalf of the child, that child could be held liable years later, as an adult.
Also, if a child is disabled, he or she may receive overpayments. Those overpayments would typically be taken out of current payments, once they are discovered.
But if disability payments were discontinued because the child's condition improved, Social Security could try to recoup the overpayments years later.
"We want to assure the public that we do not seek restitution through tax refund offset in cases when the debt in question was established prior to the debtor turning 18 years of age," Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle said in an email. "Also, we do not use tax refund offset to collect the debt of a person's relative — we only use it to collect the overpaid benefits the person received for himself or herself."
Hinkle said the debt collection could be waived if the person is without fault and repayment would "deprive the person of income needed for ordinary living expenses or would be unfair for another reason."
The Associated Press contributed to this report