Social Security

Government to Pay Social Security Back Benefits

By Beth Laurence, J.D., University of California, Hastings College of the Law

Talk to a Local Social Security Basics Attorney

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has changed its rules regarding fleeing fugitives and agreed to pay over $500 million to more than 200,000 people denied Social Security benefits because they were wrongly thought to be fleeing felons.

Social Security Withheld Fleeing Felon Benefits

Under the Fugitive Felon program, the Social Security Administration is allowed to withhold retirement, disability, or SSI benefits to anyone fleeing prosecution for committing a felony. To enforce this provision, the SSA suspended benefits to anyone whose name appeared in a computer database of outstanding arrest warrants.

A class action lawsuit, Martinez v. Astrue, alleged that the SSA's practice wrongly denied benefits to people who had a warrant for only a minor violation that did not constitute fleeing prosecution. Benefits were also unfairly cut off to people having the same name as a wanted fugitive.

The SSA agreed to change its practices in a proposed settlement reached in the case. The agency arranged to suspend payments only to those having outstanding felony arrest warrants for crimes of flight or escape (more on this below). The SSA also agreed to provide more than $500 million to pay back withheld benefits to as many as 80,000 people and to restore benefits to as many as 120,000 others.

Who Was Affected by the Settlement?

Those entitled to the repayment or reinstatement of Social Security benefits include those who were denied:

  • Social Security retirement, survivors, or disability insurance benefits
  • special veterans benefits, or
  • Supplemental Security Income payments.

This settlement does not apply to people who were denied benefits due to a warrant based on a violation of probation or parole. Also, anyone who already received a final federal court decision in an individual action regarding SSA's fugitive felon policy is not included in the settlement.

New Rules for the Fleeing Felon Program

Because of the settlement, Social Security now withholds benefit only from a very narrow class of fleeing felons. Social Security can now prevent you from collecting benefits only if you have an outstanding felony warrant for:

  • fleeing to avoid prosecution or confinement
  • escaping from custody, or
  • fleeing and escaping.

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L. Carter Massengill | April 14, 2015
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