Buried deep inside a massive piece of legislation passed by Congress sits a little-noticed passage that, with few exceptions, wipes out any statute of limitation for a debt owed to the federal government.
Thanks to the "Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008," anyone overpaid by a federal agency, at any time in their life, can now be tracked down and put on the hook for debts that are decades old.
For Bridget Galazkiewicz of Minooka, the unexpected tax grab began in the form of a mysterious message from the IRS she received the day after she expected her tax refund.
"If you haven't already seen a letter, expect one," she said of the message.
Soon thereafter, a letter arrived from the Department of the Treasury announcing the government had seized all $1,200 of her 2012 return for a debt about which she said she knew nothing.
There was no warning letter or call, just the seizure notice.
"It just raised more questions because it said the money went to Social Security, and I am not on Social Security... haven't been since I was a kid," Galazkiewicz explained.
Calls to the Social Security Administration left her more confused.
"(They) told me that I was making too much money in 1968. I was eight years old, so I don't think I was making any money," she said. "I had a .25 cent allowance."
The letter contained a social security number that Galazkiewicz thought had belonged to her mother. Galazkiewicz later found out it was actually her father's. And the confusion, she said, got thicker from there.
"And then (they) told me that my mother was working, if I wasn't working, in 1968 and she made too much money," Galazkiewicz recalled.
If you are thinking 45 years is too far for the government to reach back, you would have been correct until very recently. The tiny section tucked away on page 561 of the legislation allowed the federal government to blow out any existing statute of limitations and go after debts decades old.
"This completely lacks due process. It is not a fair system at all," Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability told NBC5 Investigates. "So now they can go back 20, 30, 40 years -- which they are doing. It is problematic for taxpayers on a number of levels."
Martire pointed out that some federal agencies, such as the SSA, already had a 10-year statute of limitations. To wipe that out and give agencies an "indefinite" timeframe to go back and find their own mistakes, he said, is a bad idea.
"If they haven't acted on a claim in 10 years, maybe they ought not act on it at all. Maybe it is marginal," he said. "This is guilty until proven innocent... a really unfair burden to put on the taxpayer."
Ultimately, in Galazkiewicz' case, the SSA said she was overpaid for survivor's benefits for her father, who died in 1964. After an inquiry by NBC5 Investigates, a spokesperson for the SSA said Bridget's wages rose for a four-month period in 1979, and that increase led to an overpayment of the survivor's benefits. Almost 35 years later, Galazkiewicz said she has no way to prove or disprove what happened so many decades ago.
- Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008
- SSA: Collection of Overdue Debts by Administrative Offset
- SSA: Guidelines on Reopening a Final Determination, Decision
- SSA: Compilation of the Social Security Laws