According to a report in the Washington Post, the government does just that.
A few weeks ago, with no notice, the U.S. government intercepted Mary Grice’s tax refunds from both the IRS and the state of Maryland. Grice had no idea that Uncle Sam had seized her money until some days later, when she got a letter saying that her refund had gone to satisfy an old debt to the government — a very old debt.
When Grice was 4, back in 1960, her father died, leaving her mother with five children to raise. Until the kids turned 18, Sadie Grice got survivor benefits from Social Security to help feed and clothe them.
Now, Social Security claims it overpaid someone in the Grice family — it’s not sure who — in 1977. After 37 years of silence, four years after Sadie Grice died, the government is coming after her daughter. Why the feds chose to take Mary’s money, rather than her surviving siblings’, is a mystery.
If, as I think, the government’s claim is based on common law principles (as opposed to specific statutory authorizations), it’s claim is probably invalid. The issue is not the age of the claim–as the article notes, Congress eliminated the statute of limitations for government claims of this sort. Nor is this a case of a child inheriting the debts of a parent. In a way, this is a run-of-the-mill unjust enrichment case. Consider this simplified version.
The government overpays Sadie on account of her Social Security benefits. Sadie, unaware of the error, cashes the check and gives the proceeds to Mary. Neither knows of the error. The government is entitled to obtain restitution from Sadie or Mary.
Putting aside the time lag, this is our case. But there is a problem for the government. It has no evidence that Sadie spent the money on Mary, as opposed to her other children, or for that matter on herself. (Maybe the law required Sadie to spend the money on her children, but if she didn’t, the government has a (defunct) claim against Sadie, not against the children.) According to the Washington Post:
The government doesn’t look into exactly who got the overpayment; the policy is to seek compensation from the oldest sibling and work down through the family until the debt is paid.
I can almost imagine why this crazy policy was (presumably) approved by government lawyers. If you have a valid restitution claim against multiple people, you can go after whoever you want; you don’t have to go after all of them. The purpose of the payments was to benefit the children, and so overpayment would have benefited all of them, if it was spent on them. And so if it’s easiest to start with the eldest sibling, that’s a policy judgment that is consistent with the law.
But under the principles of unjust enrichment, the government needs to prove that Mary actually received money from Sadie, or that the money was spent on her in a way that made her better off. It can’t.