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Government error takes $9,000 from a widow
Weeks after her husband died, Social Security cleaned out her bank account.
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 31, 2008
SPRING HILL - Cheryl Foelster was still grieving over the recent death of her husband when she went to the bank last week to pay some bills.
The bank gave her more bad news: Social Security had taken more than $9,000 out of her account, and said she owed it an extra $3,000.
"It was a shock, let me tell you," said Foelster, 70, a retired nursing assistant.
Social Security has admitted it was a mistake, she says. But as of Wednesday afternoon Foelster was still waiting for the government to return her money.
The mess started because Foelster was trying to do things right. After her husband, Richard, a retired merchant marine, died Jan. 16, Foelster's son called Social Security to let it know.
But someone mistakenly recorded the death as January 2007, making it look like Richard Foelster had been receiving Social Security payments for a year after his death.
Her husband always paid the bills, Cheryl Foelster said. So Friday she went to the bank to show the tellers her bills and make sure she had written them out correctly.
That's when she was told the money had been cleaned out of their joint account. She quickly called her son for help.
"Of course, my mom is panicking," said John Spoor, a detective with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
He spoke to Social Security officials on Friday and several times this week. He also spoke to the offices of Reps. C.W. Bill Young and Ginny Brown-Waite.
At first, Social Security officials told him it would be 30 to 60 days before his mother could get her money back. He kept complaining, and Social Security grew more and more apologetic. He now has been told the money may be returned today.
But Spoor wonders why Social Security officials haven't been able to give the money back as quickly as they took it.
"I understand mistakes happen ... but there's a way to handle a mistake and a way not to handle a mistake," he said.
Patti Patterson, a spokeswoman with Social Security, said she could not comment on Foelster's situation without a signed release from her.
But Patterson said if someone calls Social Security with information about a relative's death, a worker will record the information on a computer if the relative can provide all the relevant facts, such as Social Security number, name and date of birth. The worker does not have to see a death certificate, she said.
If someone has received Social Security benefits improperly, the agency will notify the Treasury Department, which recovers the money, Patterson said.
Spoor said his mother has had enough money to get by the past several days, and he and his sister are standing by if she needs more help.
But Spoor wonders what would have happened if his mother didn't have any money, or a relative who kept complaining.
"They would have sent an elderly woman away from their office on Friday with no money," he said.