Morgan Hayes knew the extra $13,733 that appeared in her savings account in September must have been a mistake.
But, no, calls to the Social Security Administration, which made the direct deposit, assured the 76-year-old Petaluma resident that the money was hers to spend. Letters that followed confirmed the money made up for years of mistakenly underpaying her.
And even better news, a corrected calculation meant an additional $260 a month in her future checks — much needed since the disabled senior had been surviving solely on her $1,100 monthly Social Security income.
Six months later, the windfall has become a nightmare.
The government now wants the money back — $15,329 in total. And they want it in 30 days or they threaten to cut off Hayes' Social Security payments until it is repaid.
"If we do not receive your refund within 30 days, we plan to recover the overpayment by withholding your full benefit each month" starting in June, a March 15 letter from the Social Security Administration states. "We will continue to withhold your full benefits until the overpayment has been fully recovered."
"I will literally be on the street," Hayes said this week from her rent-subsidized apartment in east Petaluma. "I can't keep my car. They can't let me stay here if I can't pay anything.
"I would have to be one of those people standing on the corner with a sign saying &‘I need food.' I will have nothing."
She has lost sleep over it and said her "brain is mush," from worries about the future for her and her cat, Chloe. Hayes, originally from Kansas, has no family nearby. Her two adult children can't offer any financial assistance.
A Social Security Administration spokesman on Friday acknowledged that payment errors occur and said Hayes may have a solid case to appeal. A formal appeal would interrupt the collection process.
In the six months before the apparent error was discovered, Hayes spent the $13,700. She had to or she would have lost other benefits, she said.
Her subsidized health coverage was threatened and her rent has been increased because of the bump in her income. MediCal officials told her she would lose her coverage and part-time in-home health worker if she didn't spend the money.
So she paid off one credit card, paid down two others and bought a newer used car.
"I thought it had to be a mistake," she said of the original payment. "So I didn't touch it. I put it in a savings account. But after two letters, I said &‘I guess it is mine.'"
She viewed the monthly increase in benefits as a godsend: "When you're living on the edge, that's a lot of money."
But now the government says it will reduce her monthly benefit back to the original $1,100 and wants the lump sum back.
On advice from the Council on Aging, Hayes sought a reconsideration and a waiver of the repayment from the Santa Rosa Social Security Administration office. But a clerk wouldn't accept her paperwork last week, Hayes said.
"She said she'd never heard of anything like this, and she wouldn't accept the request because Social Security did not make a mistake," Hayes recounted.
A spokesman for the Social Security Administration spokesman in San Francisco, Lowell Kepke, said Friday that Hayes has the right to appeal. He said if she submits detailed income and expense forms, the threat to cut off her benefits will be postponed until the agency rules on the request.