Representative Payee: It's Not a Job to Take Lightly

  • November 30th, 2023

Person writing on a slip of paper while teller waits on other side of glass.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. These are the two largest government benefit programs for people with special needs.

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Many people with disabilities who receive these public benefits can manage their own money and make other financial decisions for themselves. The SSA sends these individuals their own benefit checks each month.

Managing Funds for Someone With Special Needs

However, some individuals with special needs are not able to make important financial decisions. This may be because of their disability or because they have not yet reached the age of majority. The SSA sends their benefits directly to a third party, known as a representative payee.

The representative payee manages the funds for the person who relies on public benefits. A parent or caregiver may sign up to be a representative payee for their child with special needs. However, they often do not take the time to truly explore all the responsibilities this role entails, leading to trouble down the road.

Here are a few key things to remember about being a representative payee.

It Isn't Your Money

If you are serving as a representative payee, the funds you receive belong to the beneficiary, not to you. When you agree to serve in this role, you are responsible for managing the money for their benefit.

In almost all cases, this means that you can't charge a fee to be a representative payee. It can be easy to lose track of the beneficiary's funds, especially when family finances are intermingled. As a representative payee, you must ensure that the beneficiary, and no one else, receives the monthly payments. The funds are for their use alone.

Don't Commingle Funds

To ensure that the beneficiary's funds benefit only them, segregate the funds in a separate bank account. This account should reflect the beneficiary's ownership of the funds. It should not be a joint account with the representative payee as the other owner.

Instead, the bank account should be in the name of the beneficiary. The bank can then note the representative payee on the account. For example: "[Your name], as representative payee for [your child's name]."

Of course, this can be difficult when you are serving as the representative payee for a minor child who lives with you. In these cases, the child should have their own savings account. This is what the SSA recommends, even if the payee spends most of the child's benefits through the family's checking account.

The SSA's Representative Payee Portal is a central gateway for individual representative payees with a Social Security account. Through this online portal, they can manage direct deposit, wage reporting, and annual reporting for their beneficiary.

File Your Representative Payee Report With the SSA Each Year

The SSA also requires that a representative payee file an annual accounting called the representative payee report. This report details what you, as the representative payee, have done with the beneficiary's funds during the previous year. (Note that certain payees no longer need to complete this annual report, per the SSA; continue reading for more on this.)

If you've kept accurate records of the beneficiary's funds over the course of the year, the report will be easy to fill out. To help avoid headaches when the time comes to file the report, be sure to keep accurate records of expenditures throughout the year. And as noted above, do not commingle funds. Note that failing to file the report could lead to your removal as a representative payee.

Certain payees are exempt from the annual accounting requirement, including:

  • Natural or adoptive parents or legal guardians of a minor child beneficiary who primarily reside in the same household as the child
  • Natural or adoptive parents of a disabled adult beneficiary who primarily reside in the same household as the beneficiary
  • Spouse of a beneficiary

Know the Supplemental Security Income Rules

If you are a representative payee for a person receiving SSI benefits, you may face yet one more challenge. The SSI program adheres to stringent income and asset rules that you need to follow.

For instance, SSI recipients can have only $2,000 to their name to be eligible for these benefits. As a representative payee, you must:

  • Know the rules regarding how much the beneficiary can accumulate in assets
  • Understand how one's level of assets can affect their ability to continue qualifying for benefits
  • Deal with any lump-sum payments the beneficiary may receive as past due SSI benefits, which comes with its own set of rules

In a worst-case scenario, not knowing the rules can lead the beneficiary to lose their benefits altogether. You also want to avoid the possibility of overpayments that the beneficiary must then repay from their own funds.

Work With a Special Needs Planner

Serving as a representative payee is not a simple job; don't take it lightly. The SSA does offer an online guide for representative payees. This resource addresses frequently asked questions and allows you to complete your payee accounting online.

However, to ensure that you have a handle on all your duties, be sure to speak with a qualified special needs planner near you. An attorney with expertise in special needs planning can explain the intricacies of the system and provide you with tips that will best fit the specific needs of your family member with special needs.

Learn more about the various powers and responsibilities of representative payees.

Created date: 08/31/2009


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