Recently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency mailed out recoupment letters to 1,200 New Jersey residents in order to recover $8M that was paid to homeowners who were not eligible for relief. Whether through fraud, human error, accounting mistakes or other reasons, assistance sometimes goes to individuals who were not eligible.What to do if you get a recoupment letter:Maryann Flanigan, who oversees superstorm Sandy assistance for Legal Services of New Jersey, says the worst thing you can do is ignore the correspondence. Her advice:• Read the letter. It contains detailed instructions on how to get specific information from FEMA on why it is seeking payback, as well how to appeal or settle the debt. Each letter is stamped with a date, and you have 60 days from that day to appeal the alleged debt. Penalties begin after 90 days.• If you question the legitimacy of the debt, Flanigan suggests you ask for your FEMA file right away because it can take weeks for the agency to respond. Contact Legal Services at 888-576-5529 orwww.lsnjlawhotline.org/HurricaneSandy/ for free assistance with the exacting wording of the FEMA file request. Your file will have copies of everything FEMA has sent to you or received from you, and can be instrumental in proving that they overlooked a rent receipt or misidentified some other piece of paperwork.• In the interim, you should gather all the FEMA paperwork you have. It’s possible that you already have the debt-exonerating evidence in hand.• If you think you may indeed have received more from FEMA than you should have, you can apply for a hardship waiver or ask them to compromise on the debt.
• If you want to get a jump on any final debt finding and you can afford to pay anything now, you may choose enter into a payment plan with FEMA. If it is later determined that the debt claim was totally false or too high, FEMA is compelled to return all the money you overpaid them, plus interest.
• You can go through the recoupment process without a lawyer, but Legal Services does provide free counsel for just this sort of thing. They can be reached at 888-576-5529 or www.lsnjlawhotline.org/HurricaneSandy. Legal Services will be hosting a 2-hour free clinic for Sandy survivors at 6 p.m., Dec. 2 at the Affordable Housing Alliance’s Housing Recovery and Resource Center in Highlands, 171 1st Ave., and another at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 6 at the Long Branch Concordance, second floor of the St. James Church, 300 Broadway, Long Branch.