Bamboozled: Social Security slip-up

Making ends meet had been a lifetime struggle for the Bushkos, a family of seven from Elizabeth. Then a simple bureaucratic errorBB branding cost them thousands of dollars, adding more uncertainty to an already fragile financial existence. They contacted Bamboozled for help.

Anthony Bushko and his wife had adopted and raised five special-needs children, now all adults. The family always depended on the children’s benefits to contribute to the household income; they each had been receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits since birth because of their disabilities. The family was also helped by income supplements from the state Division of Youth and Family Services for the care of each child until age 21.

Five years ago, the youngest Bushko, Anthony Jr., was denied SSI benefits. Now 20, he will graduate from Edison High School in Elizabeth in June.

“He should have been like the rest of the kids with Social Security,” Anthony Bushko Sr. said. “They gave all kinds of excuses and we keep fighting. I’ve got all these kids and they need food to eat and clothes and everything.”

WHAT WENT WRONG

Anthony and Nancy Bushko wanted children, but they couldn’t conceive.

32409Nancy grew up as a disabled child with severe eye damage. She wanted to give back, so the couple followed an unconventional path.

“She really wanted to adopt these kids who didn’t have a home,” Anthony Bushko Sr. said.

In 1999, Nancy was diagnosed with lung cancer. Anthony retired from his job as a janitor, taking his small pension to care for his wife. She died three years later.

The Bushkos suddenly faced new budget challenges. Anthony Sr.’s pension and Social Security weren’t enough to support the large family’s modest lifestyle. The adult children helped out with their SSI benefits, but the monthly checks from DYFS for the care of the children had ended when they reached 21.

Still, they were getting by. Then in 2004, the Social Security Administration stopped Anthony Jr.’s SSI benefits, saying his father’s total income was too high. When Anthony Jr. reached age 18 in 2006, he reapplied for SSI as an adult. The agency then said he was ineligible because he was receiving a DYFS income supplement.

That’s where the mistake was made. Anthony Sr. was the one receiving the DYFS income supplement, The income was reported wrongly as Anthony Jr.’s.

The Bushko family said repeated phone calls and visits to the Elizabeth field office went unanswered. They turned to a pro bono attorney for help. The attorney said the Elizabeth office didn’t call her back, either.

Last summer, the family sent an appeal to the agency, which they admit they submitted after the 60-day appeals deadline had passed. (They waited, they said, because they were expecting the attorney to do it.) They continued to call the Elizabeth office to schedule an appointment, but again, their calls were never returned.

When he was out of school last summer, Anthony Jr. went to the office without an appointment, waited several hours, and left without being seen. He can’t get an excused absence from school without a letter from Social Security saying he has an appointment. Impossible when the field office won’t return the family’s calls.

The family started to panic. The DYFS benefit was scheduled to cease in April when Anthony Jr. turns 21, and the family’s already tight budget was headed for disaster.

THE SOLUTION

Bamboozled contacted the Social Security Administration to get to the bottom of things. After reviewing the case, the agency said there’s good news for Anthony Jr. He’s eligible for SSI, and he’ll receive more than 2½ years’ worth of retroactive benefits — $14,625.25.

“It appears to have been a misunderstanding about the DYFS income and someone read something the wrong way,” said Jane Zanca, senior public affairs specialist with the Social Security Administration.

The agency investigates if late appeals like Anthony Jr.’s are late for “good cause.” Not all late appeals will be accepted, but Zanca said there was good cause here, in part because the family’s repeated attempts to schedule an appointment went unanswered. (In fact, the family could have made an appointment with the field office via the agency’s 800-number, but they didn’t know that.)

“Could we have been more responsive? Probably,” Zanca said. “Could they have been more vigilant? Yes, but this is a complex situation and they’re dealing with a lot of different issues and they did make the attempts.”

The retroactive benefits, if they’re not spent, will be considered an asset and could count against Anthony Jr.’s eligibility for future benefits. He should consider spending down the money to pay past due bills, fund education, purchase a burial plot, or talk to an estate planning attorney about a special needs trust so he has money available for the future.

“We needed it bad,” said Anthony Sr.

(Note: Every case that comes before SSA is different and not every appeal results in a reinstatement or retroactive benefits. If you think you’re due benefits, visit ssa.gov or call 800-772-1213.)