Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal government program, administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA), which is designed to supplement the income of elderly and disabled individuals who have limited income and financial resources. Under the current guidelines of the SSI program an individual who is unable to work and who receives less than $657 per month from other sources may be eligible to receive SSI benefits.
Although monthly income is the major factor considered when calculating the amount of benefits an individual can receive, the SSI program also limits the amount of money, property, and other assets that recipients can own while receiving benefits. Currently, an individual’s resources, as certain assets are called by the SSA, must total less than $2,000 in value for him or her to be eligible to receive SSI benefits. The assets considered by the SSA for calculating a beneficiary’s resources include cash, bank accounts, land, and vehicles, as well as several other categories of property. For a more extensive list of assets considered when calculating a recipient’s resources, as well as for more in depth information regarding the SSI program, you should visit the SSA's Understanding Supplemental Security Income Web site.
If the SSA determines that a beneficiary’s assets exceed the limits set by the SSI program, the beneficiary’s SSI payments will be suspended until his assets are once again below the SSI guidelines. In addition, if the SSA determines that a beneficiary has received SSI payments while his assets exceeded the program limits, it may require that the beneficiary repay to the SSA any payments made while he had too many assets.
From your question, it sounds like this may be what has happened to your friend; by analyzing financial records the SSA may have determined that the $8,000 held in the joint bank account made his assets exceed the SSI limits while he was receiving benefits, so they are requiring him to repay ALL payments made while he had too many assets. So, instead of having to pay them just the $8,000 in the bank account, he is being made to pay back $28,000 in benefits paid because the SSA has determined that he was actually ineligible to receive those payments. The $28,000 debt may also include penalties, interest, and other fees, especially if the SSA believes that your friend intentionally withheld information about his finances when submitting his application for SSI benefits.
Due to the fact that your friend is mentally ill, the SSA may be willing to reduce or even eliminate this obligation. To negotiate with the SSA, your friend may wish to hire an attorney to represent him. If his position is that he was not competent enough to know that he had assets that he should have disclosed to them, the SSA is unlikely to negotiate with him personally, as they may assume that he is also incompetent to enter into any meaningful negotiations or sign any binding contract. Your friend may also be able to appoint a non-attorney representative to negotiate with the SSA, though hiring an attorney would be preferable given the complexity of the situation and the amount of money involved; to read about appointing a representative for dealings with the SSA, read How Someone Can Help You With Your SSI.
If your friend’s mental illness renders him truly incompetent, your state courts may need to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent him in dealings with his attorney and with the SSA. I would encourage him to consult with an attorney (you may wish to accompany him) to discuss his situation and to determine the best way to approach the SSA about his disability and why he should not be held responsible for this debt.
Moving back to the Ukraine will not make your friend’s obligation to the SSA disappear; however, if he does decide to move overseas, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the SSA to force him to repay the debt. Unless he leaves assets in the United States which the SSA can seize to apply to the debt (such as bank accounts with money in them, property in his name, etc.), it is unlikely that the SSA will be able to collect on this obligation if your friend is no longer living in the States and no longer receiving money from any company or government agency in the United States. Assuming that he will have no assets or income in the U.S. after moving to the Ukraine, your friend can probably put this debt out of his mind, especially if he is not planning to move back to the States.
Again, I would encourage him to consult with an attorney about his plans and to discuss what action, if any, the SSA can take against him once he moves overseas. If his attorney thinks he can convince the SSA to forgive the debt based on your friend’s mental condition and ignorance of the funds in the account they are citing, he should probably pursue that option so that he does not need to worry about this debt if his plans change and he decides to stay in or return to the United States. However, if the SSA will not work with him in resolving this obligation, moving to Ukraine may keep him safe from any collection actions taken by the SSA.
I wish your friend the best of luck in resolving this obligation.
To learn more about how to resolve Social Security Administration over-payments, see the Bills.com resource Social Security Overpaid Me $18K & Now Wants It Back. I hope that the information I provided helps him Find. Learn. Save.