The debate over Social Security has been going on for some time. Will the fund go dry? Will Congress act? Will there be anything left for baby boomers, much less millennials? For some, Social Security benefits are the main source of income after retirement. For others, those government checks will supplement retirement plans just enough to make ends meet.

Imagine that you are one of those retirees and you find out one day that the government has garnished your benefits to pay off a student loan. Then imagine that you thought you had paid off that loan — 40 years ago. That was the situation a 67-year-old man found himself in recently, a situation that others may find familiar.

When his Social Security check arrived, he couldn’t help but notice it was $300 lower than expected. There was no explanation, no letter or phone call. He finally tracked down the reason on his own. His grandmother had paid off his federal student loan just after he graduated, but the government had no record of that.

Student loan debt has a long life, it seems, and it can resurface after years of lying dormant. We wonder if the government would have pressed for repayment if this man had not been receiving federal benefits. The government’s mistake or tardiness is putting this man’s retirement income at risk. If the loan were a private loan, the statute of limitations for a collection action would certainly have fun after 40 years.

This case is not an anomaly. The federal government has the power to garnish benefits or to block them entirely; the government can withhold tax rebates to cover student loan debt.

And, of course, student loans are not the only debts that burden seniors these days. According to the Federal Reserve, debt loads among Americans 50 and older have tripled in the last 10 years or so.

What can we do? Until the law changes, the burden falls on each individual to handle student loan zombie debt and other consumer debt. In many cases, a debt management attorney could help.

Source: Business Week, “Student Debt Threatens the Safety Net for Elderly Americans,” Natalie Kitroeff, Aug. 12, 2014