Dear Savvy Senior: Does Social Security offer any special help to beneficiaries who struggle managing their benefits? My aunt, who has no children, has dementia and struggles keeping up with her bills and other financial duties. — Inquiring Niece
Dear Inquiring: Yes, Social Security actually has a little-known program called the representative payee program that helps beneficiaries who need assistance managing their Social Security benefit payments. Here’s what you should know.
Representative payee program
Authorized by Congress back in 1939, the Social Security representative payee program provides money management help to beneficiaries who are incapable of managing their Social Security income. Beneficiaries in need of this help are often seniors suffering from dementia or minor children who are collecting Social Security survivors’ benefits.
Currently, more than 5 million Social Security beneficiaries have representative payees.
Representative payees also handle benefits for nearly 3 million recipients of Supplemental Security Income, a Social Security-administered benefit program for low-income people who are over 65, blind or disabled.
Who are payees?
A representative payee is typically a relative or close friend of the beneficiary needing assistance, but Social Security can also name an organization or institution for the role, such as a nursing home or social-service agency.
Duties of a representative payee include:
>> Using the beneficiary’s Social Security or SSI payments to meet their essential needs, such as food, shelter, household bills and medical care. The money can also be used for personal needs such as clothing and recreation.
>> Keeping any remaining money from benefit payments in an interest-bearing bank account or savings bonds for the beneficiary’s future needs.
>> Keeping records of benefit payments received and how the money was spent or saved.
>> Reporting to Social Security any changes or events that could affect the beneficiary’s payments (such as a move, marriage, divorce or death).
>> Reporting any circumstances that affect the payee’s ability to serve in the role.
As a representative payee, you cannot combine the beneficiary’s Social Security payments with your own money or use them for your own needs. The bank account into which benefits are deposited should be fully owned by the beneficiary, with the payee listed as financial agent.
Some payees, generally those who do not live with the beneficiary, are required to submit annual reports to Social Security accounting for how benefits are used. For more information on the responsibilities and restrictions that come with the role, see the Social Security publication “A Guide for Representative Payees” at SSA.gov/pubs/EN-05-10076.pdf.
How to get help
If you believe your aunt might need a representative payee, call Social Security at 800-772-1213 and make an appointment to discuss the matter at its local office. Applying to serve as a payee usually requires a face-to-face interview.
Social Security may consider other evidence in deciding whether a beneficiary needs a payee and selecting the person to fill the role, including doctors’ assessments and statements from relatives, friends and others in a position to give an informed opinion about the beneficiary’s situation.
You should also know that if you become your aunt’s representative payee, you cannot collect a fee for doing it. However, some organizations that serve in the role do receive fees, paid out of the beneficiary’s Social Security or SSI payments.
For more information on the program, visit SSA.gov/payee.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.