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Frank Gray

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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Tim Phovemire, left, and his wife, Christina, are fighting for disability benefits.

Disability benefit a battle of wills

I first met Tim Phovemire a few years ago when he called to express his frustration over what was an epic battle to get disability payments.

The story was that Phovemire, who was in his 40s and drove a forklift, had suffered a heart attack. He subsequently claimed he had suffered numerous other heart attacks, but someone else’s medical history was mixed in with his medical file, which complicated his efforts to get benefits, he said.

I never wrote anything about that particular issue, but Phovemire would be turned down for disability and appeal numerous times.

For 10 years, Phovemire kept appealing and appealing, and finally about three years ago he found himself before a judge who agreed to approve his disability benefits, but with only a small amount of back payments.

As the saying goes, all things come to he who waits. Phovemire, who is now 60, was getting around $700 a month in benefits.

Then, he says, his wife, who is 54, suffered two strokes and applied for disability herself. She was approved about three months ago, and is receiving $818 a month.

Early this month, though, Phovemire got a letter from Social Security. His disability payments had been reduced, and as a result he had been paid $1,150 too much in July and August.

His monthly check would be cut, and Social Security would take out an extra $71 a month until he had covered the overpayment.

The result was that he would be getting about $268 a month, and his wife would be getting her regular amount.

That’s curious, I thought, that his monthly check would be reduced so much.

So I called Aging & In-Home Services of Northeast Indiana, which has a staff member who is knowledgeable about Social Security issues, and asked how this could happen.

Every person on disability benefits gets payments based upon earnings history, I was told, so there is a maximum that each household can receive. Because both Phovemire and his wife were receiving disability payments, the maximum total they could receive each month was around $1,100, so Phovemire’s check was significantly reduced.

Phovemire could ask Social Security for a waiver, I was told. All he had to do was itemize his monthly expenses and show that making him reimburse the overpayment would cause him serious financial hardship, said Sylvia Wade, the Social Security specialist at Aging & In-Home Services. In fact, she could help him prepare a waiver.

I gave Phovemire Wade’s name and number and urged him to call her.

A couple of weeks later, I called Phovemire back and asked him about the waiver. He hadn’t gotten around to calling Wade.

But Phovemire had spoken to the lawyer who helped him get disability. He says the lawyer advised him that if he and his wife got divorced, both could get their full disability checks, and maybe other benefits.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone had gotten divorced to either preserve assets or get better benefits.

But he didn’t want to get divorced, Phovemire said. He’d been married for 15 years.

It’s just one of those quirks of the law, I told him.

But then again, marriage is so ’70s.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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