Savvy Senior: Little Recognized Social Safety Program Helps Seniors Handle Their Cash

Dear accomplished senior,
Does social security offer specific help to beneficiaries who have difficulty managing their benefits? My aunt, who has no children, has dementia and struggles with her bills and other financial obligations.
Inquiring niece

Dear inquiries,

Yes, Social Security actually has a little-known program known as the Representative Payee Program that helps beneficiaries who need help with managing their Social Security benefits. Here’s what you should know.

Representative payee program

The Social Security Funds Payee Program, approved by Congress back in 1939, provides money management assistance to beneficiaries unable to manage their Social Security income. Beneficiaries who need this help are often seniors with dementia or underage children who receive survivor benefits from social security.

Currently, more than five million social security beneficiaries have representative payees.

Representative payees also provide benefits for nearly three million recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a social security-administered benefit program for low-income people who are over 65 years of age, blind, or disabled.

Who are the payees?

A representative payee is usually a relative or close friend of the beneficiary who needs help, but Social Security can also designate an organization or institution for the role, such as a nursing home or social services agency.

The duties of a representative payee include:

  • Using the beneficiary’s Social Security or SSI payments to meet their basic needs such as food, shelter, household bills, and medical care. The money can also be used for personal needs such as clothing and recreation.
  • Retention of remaining funds from benefit payments on an interest-bearing bank account or savings bonds for future needs of the beneficiary.
  • Records of benefit payments received and how the money was spent or saved.
  • Report to Social Security any changes or events that could affect the beneficiary’s payments (e.g. move, marriage, divorce, or death).
  • Report circumstances that affect the payee’s ability to assume the role.

As a representative payee, you cannot combine the beneficiary’s social security contributions with your own money or use them for your own needs. The bank account into which the benefits are paid should be wholly owned by the beneficiary, with the payee listed as the financial agent.

Some payees, usually those who do not live with the beneficiary, are required to submit annual reports to Social Security on the use of the benefits. For more information about the responsibilities and limitations associated 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 think your aunt may need a representative payee, call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 and make an appointment to discuss the matter at her local office. Applying as a payee usually requires a personal interview.

Social security may consider other evidence, including medical assessments and statements from relatives, friends, and others who have an informed view of the beneficiary’s situation, in deciding whether a beneficiary needs a payee and selecting who to play the role can submit.

You should also know that if you become your aunt’s deputy payee, you will not be able to charge a fee for it. However, some organizations that serve in this role receive fees paid from the beneficiary’s Social Security or SSI payments.

More information about the program can be found at SSA.gov/payee.

Send your senior questions to: Experienced senior, PO Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor on the NBC Today Show and author of The Savvy Senior.