Here is something that may come as a surprise: the U.S. government can—and will!—confiscate your tax refund or Social Security money because of overpayments that it made to your parents decades ago.

The Washington Post today investigates this confiscatory and little-publicized practice, which no branch of the government is very eager to take credit for. They tell the story of Maryland resident Mary Grice, 58, who saw her tax refunds confiscated by the government this year. Why? Because "Social Security claims it overpaid someone in the Grice family — it's not sure who — in 1977." We are not even talking about, say, old loans that your parents took out. We are talking about the government itself mistakenly overpaying benefits to your parents decades ago, and now, all these years later, coming to you and taking that money out of your pocket, because, you know, your mom probably used it to buy you baby food.

The Federal Trade Commission, on its Web site, advises Americans that "family members typically are not obligated to pay the debts of a deceased relative from their own assets." But Social Security officials say that if children indirectly received assistance from public dollars paid to a parent, the children's money can be taken, no matter how long ago any overpayment occurred.

There used to be a ten year statute of limitations on collections like these, but that was done away with three years ago, and now the tax man is free to go into your pockets for, hell, an extra bushel of corn that your Great x 10 grandpa Jebediah got after the Revolutionary war. You will not want to miss this classic government explanation for this process: "Congressional staffers say the request probably came from the bureaucracy."

Seems likely, yes.

[Photo: AP]