Beware of Public Benefits: The Cautionary Tale of Overpayments

Recently, I have seen an increase in the number of notices from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Medical Assistance Services relating to benefits received by a person not eligible to receive benefits any longer due to a change in circumstances. Some of these cases were the result of administrative error; however, a majority of the cases were the result of beneficiaries, or their representatives, not understanding the rules surrounding benefits.

Most people do not realize that even a change in household size, income, or assets could impact means-tested benefits. A common example I see is that a child receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but something happens to disrupt eligibility. This could be an increase in a family member’s income, potentially due to a new job, or an increase in assets, such as when someone received a personal injury settlement or an inheritance. A family member does not think to report this change of events, despite their affirmative obligation to report these changes to the appropriate agency, which leads to the agency discovering the ineligibility period months, or years later, resulting in a large overpayment due to the agency.

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Although Social Security and Medicaid each have their own rules and a number of different programs, ineligibility for one program may detrimentally impact the other. For example, the child receiving SSI is automatically eligible for Medicaid, and as a result of ineligibility for SSI, may be ineligible to receive Medicaid. Not only would money paid by Social Security need to be repaid, but you may need to reimburse Medicaid for services rendered, including payments made to a private insurance company to keep you on the Commonwealth’s plan, during the period of ineligibility.

Often, individuals receiving benefits depend on the benefits for basic survival. In the event of an overpayment, the individual often cannot afford to repay a lump sum to the agency or otherwise suffer the loss of a reduced benefit. As a result, any change in financial circumstance should be addressed with the appropriate agency as soon as possible, bearing in mind that family changes will affect an individual under the age of eighteen.

Because of the severe impact on an individual when there is a misstep, you should not “dabble” in public benefits planning. When receiving public benefits, it is important to work with someone who is knowledgeable in the area. An experienced Elder Law or Special Needs Planning attorney can help navigate the benefits maze by explaining the benefits you are or may be eligible to receive, your responsibilities, and what things to watch out for.

Kit Kat

Ask Kit Kat – Shelter Tests

Hook Law Center:  Kit Kat, what can you tell us about how shelters determine which dogs are good adoptees and which may be too dangerous to adopt?

Kit Kat:  Well, this is a complicated issue. Shelters themselves are beginning to re-examine their protocols for determining which dogs are suitable to be adopted and which are too aggressive and have to be put down. In the past, shelters thought they were being objective and used prompts that were supposed to tease out who was OK for adoption from those who were not. For instance, they would place a fake, plastic hand on a stick in front of the dog. If they grabbed it, and bit it, they failed the adoption test. Or they would have a hooded person shaking a cane, and see how the dog reacted. Since the adoption tests have proven not to be perfectly reliable, the shelter community in some areas is beginning to adopt a system that relies more on observation of behavior at the shelter. That can be misleading, too, as shelters are an artificial environment where dogs do not get as much individual attention as they deserve. There are also smells and many more dogs than they would ever encounter in real life.

Shelters, however, deserve a lot of credit for even looking at this issue. The Maricopa County shelter which serves the Phoenix, AZ area takes in approximately 34,000 dogs in any given year. In the first half of 2016, 536 dogs were euthanized for behavioral reasons. In the first half of 2017, with a new director, they stopped the behavioral testing, and only 31 dogs have been euthanized for aggressive behavior. According to Dr. Gary J. Patronek, an adjunct professor at the veterinary medicine school at Tufts University, ‘The tests are artificial and contrived. During the most stressful time of a dog’s life, you’re exposing it to deliberate attempts to provoke a reaction. And then the dog does something it wouldn’t do in a family situation. So you euthanize it?’

It is reassuring that shelters are doing all they can to save as many dogs as possible. Shelters which handle large numbers of dogs, like those in LA and NYC, even go as far as placing their dogs in playgroups outside the shelters. Dogs Playing for Life is one such group in which playgroups are used to observe the dogs’ behavior. This issue will continue to be debated. However, much progress is being made in the attempt to treat dogs in the most respectful way possible. (Jan Hoffman, “Is This Dog Dangerous? Shelters Struggle With Live-or-Die Tests,” The New York Times, Science section, July 31, 2017)

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