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Tipline Investigation: Santa Barbara widow must prove 33-year marriage to receive husband’s death benefit

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - This NewsChannel 3 Tipline story profiles a Santa Barbara widow and her two and a half year fight against the Social Security Administration. It all boiled down to one thing, the government refused to recognize her marriage, even though she had been happily married to the same man for 33 years.

Walk into Debra Johnson’s Santa Barbara home, and you’ll see photos everywhere of love and a happy life with her husband Errol.

Errol Johnson was well-known in Santa Barbara as the manager of the Palace Restaurant for 20 years. So, his death on June 8th, 2019 stunned everyone.

“In September of that same year, I applied for widow’s benefits as well as the death benefit,” said Johnson.

But, she was denied. The Social Security Administration said Johnson had to provide evidence of her 33-year marriage to Errol.

“I brought in a license of marriage from Jamaica where we were married in ‘85,” said Johnson.

But, she says Social Security did not accept it because it was a license and not a certificate of marriage. Then the SSA asked for ten years of tax returns, which it later denied because they had been e-filed.

“So they denied me, officially denied. I wrote the Ministry in Jamaica. They didn’t respond, but they had just had a hurricane,” explained Johnson.

She contacted U.S. Immigration for help because Errol was a naturalized citizen, but that didn’t work.

On January 29th, 2020 a ray of hope. The IRS sent her 11 years worth of tax records. However, in that same batch of mail, another letter from Social Security saying…

“You are officially denied, but you can appeal,” said Johnson.

So, she appealed in March 2020, but that’s when Covid shut everything down.

“The first part was hard because I had to jump through hoops and I was in grief, my husband’s death was unexpected so it’s a big shock,” said Johnson.

In the Fall of 2020, she contacted Social Security again and was told she would have to wait 13 months to get an appeal hearing. 

Finally, in July 2021, more than two years after Errol’s death, a judge ruled that, yes Debra had been married to her husband for 33-years.

“It’s a done deal. It’s a done deal. I’m done anyway,” said Johnson.

Now, even with a judge’s order nothing happened. Johnson said she called Social security repeatedly and got different excuses every time.

“The payment processing center, which I’m sure has a better name, didn’t get the letter from the judge. Your claim was settled. It was denied because it was filed under the wrong number,” said Johnson.

She said a Social Security Administration representative even told her not to call anymore, because when she did the clock resets. 

By the time she contacted the NewsChannel 3 Tipline this past January she had been through the bureaucratic ringer.

“I feel like I’m in a house of mirrors, a fun house, is that what you call it? Where I see the exit and kinda go there, but it’s another mirror,” said Johnson.

The NewsChannel contacted the Social Security Administration to figure out what was going on. About the same time, she received an award letter and a few weeks after that she finally received the money.

“33 months of my husband’s Social Security benefits. Yep,” said Johnson. “How’s it feel?” asked C.J. Ward. “It feels rewarding. It’s nice to know that my perseverance paid off. I knew I was right and it just took me a long time to prove it and for them to recognize it,” said Johnson.

Johnson's perseverance and grit made it happen.

The NewsChannel asked the Social Security Administration several times why Johnson had to fight so long to get her benefits. A spokeswoman said they could not comment citing privacy reasons.

If you’re wondering, the SSA did not pay interest on the money it owed her for two and a half years.

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C.J. Ward

C.J. Ward is the evening anchor for KEYT News Channel 3 and the station’s lead investigative reporter. To learn more about C.J., click here


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