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Dear Senior Living Adviser,

My husband passed away a year ago. He was collecting Social Security benefits. We were married for 25 years. After he died, I kept collecting his check because I am only 50 years old and don’t qualify for survivors benefits yet. Am I in trouble? Is there jail time for doing that? I feel that I deserve that check.

— Winnie Widow

Dear Winnie,

You may have seen the “60 Minutes” piece in March, showing a woman who expects to serve jail time for continuing to collect her deceased mother’s Social Security disability benefit for decades after her mom died.

You’re wondering if you’re in the same situation after a year of continuing to get your deceased husband’s benefits, especially when Patrick O’Carroll, the inspector general of the Social Security Administration, or SSA, is quoted in the segment as saying, “What we’re tryin’ to do, is get the word out there, is if you do take it, and you’re not supposed to do it, we’re gonna find you, we’re gonna arrest you, and we’re gonna get the money back.”

If you’re not disabled at age 50 or caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or disabled, you’re not eligible for survivors benefits as a widow or widower until you reach age 60. The following is from the SSA publication “How Social Security can help you when a family member dies”:

If the deceased was receiving Social Security benefits, you must return the benefit received for the month of death or any later months. For example, if the person died in July, you must return the benefit paid in August. If benefits were paid by direct deposit, contact the bank or other financial institution. Request that any funds received for the month of death or later be returned to Social Security. If the benefits were paid by check, do not cash any checks received for the month in which the person dies or later. Return the checks to Social Security as soon as possible.

I’m recommending that you contact the SSA at 1 (800) 772-1213 or set up an appointment with your local Social Security office. You’ll have to provide the SSA with a copy of your husband’s death certificate. That will stop the payments on his account. It also will trigger a notice of overpayment on the account.

Do you have the money to reimburse Social Security for the benefits paid since your husband’s death? The government is going to want the money back. Not being able to repay it all at once doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t report the problem. It’s just going to require a repayment plan.

Your feeling that you deserve the money doesn’t factor into the matter. Instead, follow the first law of holes, which is: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Continuing on your current path is going to make matters that much worse down the road.

I also recommend that you work with an attorney in this matter. If you start the process without one and try to work it out on your own, you may say or do something to jeopardize your case with the SSA.

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