Val Dolcini, state executive director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency in California, used the release of a final rule that targets fraud and abuse of farm programs to join FSA Administrator Jonathan Coppess in affirming the agency’s commitment to program and payment accuracy. At issue has been the dispersal of payments to agricultural producers after an individual’s death, a circumstance that is covered in the final rule published in the Federal Register on Dec. 28, 2010.

“It is common and legally required for USDA to pay estates of producers who die, because heirs have legal rights to receive program payments earned during the farmer’s lifetime,” said Dolcini.  “Generally, error rates have been small, but an audit in 2007 highlighted areas for improvement.  Since then, we at FSA have worked hard to make procedural improvements that have further reduced error rates and are saving taxpayers significantly. We are codifying those improvements with this final regulation.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit in 2007 found that the vast majority of farm payments were made properly.  Only two percent of payments to estates of deceased farmers were paid when the estate was not entitled to payment.  Still, this error rate prompted USDA to implement additional safeguards and to strengthen data reconciliation procedures to ensure that payments made on behalf of deceased persons were not distributed incorrectly. As a result, in 2008, errors dropped to .008 percent, and in 2009, they fell even further to .007 percent.

FSA additional safeguards include:

• Each quarter (double the amount of time required by the law); USDA matches individuals who receive FSA program payments with data provided by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to determine if any program recipient is deceased.

• Under the Direct and Counter-Cyclical Payment Program, counter-cyclical payments may be legally issued up to two years and three months after program enrollment. The same taxpayer identification number must be used for the entire program payment period to properly track the issuance of program benefits.

• Deceased individual listings are investigated through local FSA county offices. FSA would only pay a farmer after death when the farmer applied for the benefit before death and is eligible to receive the benefit, but died before the payment was received. These cases account for payments made by FSA to deceased individuals.