Important: We updated this article with current SSA policy data and statistics in May 2022. Over eight million Americans receive disability benefits of some sort each year. Among people getting Social Security disability, about 29% receive benefits for mental health issues. Because mental health issues can affect people in different ways, the Social Security Administration (SSA) sometimes appoints a representative payee. This representative payee receives Social Security disability or Supplemental Security Income benefits for beneficiaries who can’t manage their own payments. While the SSA appoints these representative payees, they’re responsible for much more than receiving SSD checks or doling out cash.
Why Does Any Person on Disability Need a Representative Payee?
There are many reasons why the SSA will appoint a representative payee for those who cannot manage their own benefits. Most often, the SSA finds it necessary based on information from the beneficiary’s treating doctor or DDS claim examiner. The payee’s duties include using disability benefits to pay for the beneficiary’s current needs, including rent, medicine, transportation, and food. Payees are also tasked with saving money whenever possible to plan and budget for future needs.
While representative payees are supposed to help manage your monthly benefits money, they cannot spend it on whatever they want. Legally, they must use the money to pay for things you need to survive since those funds belong to you. To make sure your representative payee doesn’t misuse your benefits, he or she is required to keep detailed records. To ensure that all your financial needs get met, your representative payee must regularly report these records to the SSA. Anytime you ask, your representative payee must show you these records.
What Kind of Responsibilities Does My Representative Payee Have?
First and foremost, your representative payee is responsible for paying your bills and other necessary expenses with your benefits. Financial needs your representative payee is responsible for include:
- Housing and utilities
- Medical and dental expenses
- Personal care items
- Rehabilitation expenses
Once these expenses are covered, your payee can use any remaining funds to pay your other bills. They can also use benefit money to pay for your dependents or other required expenses. The SSA then expects your payee to save any leftover money for the future.
It’s important to know your representative payee does not have complete control over all your finances. Payees are solely responsible for managing money from your benefit checks, not every single penny you have. They have no legal authority to manage your other financial affairs, including:
- Property that you own (like real estate, jewelry or inherited assets)
- Medical matters or costs unrelated to treating your disability
- Discretionary income (i.e., money gifts, alimony or child support payments)
Payees also must keep their own money separate from yours. If someone mishandles your money in any way, the SSA can remove that person from acting as your payee. In fact, the government may investigate payees and make them repay any misused money if they find proof of wrongdoing.
How Did the SSA Choose My Representative Payee?
Whenever possible, the SSA chooses a representative payee who knows you well and has your best interest in mind. Here are some questions the SSA considers when choosing your representative payee:
- How well does this person know you?
- Does this person want to help you?
- How often does the payee see you?
- Does this person know exactly what your needs are?
- Does this person live with you? (This improves someone’s odds for getting selected since you see each other often and your daily needs are clear.)
In most cases, a friend or loved one will ask the SSA for permission to be your representative payee. If no friend or family member offers first, then the SSA will appoint one for you. The SSA may consider recommendations from your social service agency, nursing home, lawyer, or other organization when appointing your payee.
A loved one or guardian (for minor beneficiaries) can apply directly with the SSA to become your representative payee. If you want to be a representative payee for a loved one, you can apply through the SSA’s website. If you represent an organization, you’ll need to provide the organization’s employer identification number when you apply. Most often, you’ll need to complete the payee application interview face-to-face.
If you’re a beneficiary and you have a specific person you’d like to make your payee, tell the SSA. You can do this in person at your local SSA office or over the phone, and they’ll consider your request. You can also speak to a disability advocate about appointing your own representative payee. They can help you determine who would make the best payee based on your individual needs.
How Can I Stay Involved in Managing My Benefits?
You and your representative payee should communicate regularly about how to manage your funds, along with your bills. Your payee should be able to show you how much money you receive each month in SSI or SSDI benefits. You should also see how much your monthly bills cost and any other expenses covered by your disability income. They are required to show detailed reports to the SSA about this information, so it should be easy to find. After showing how much money’s left (if any), you can discuss how you would like to spend those funds. Ideally, you should be able to save any additional money for the future. If you’re on SSI and eligible for an ABLE account, discuss that savings option with your representative payee.
You should also notify your payee about any changes in your life that could affect your monthly disability income, including:
- Getting married
- Starting a new job
- Leaving your Ticket to Work job
If you get money from another source or save any from your disability payments, you should notify your representative payee. And if your condition improves enough for you to start working again, definitely notify your payee along with the SSA. Failing to report the above actions may result in discontinuation of your disability benefits. In fact, you may even have to pay back any money you received after your disability started to improve. When this happens, the SSA typically sends you an overpayment letter in the mail showing exactly how much you owe.
How Can I Be a Good Representative Payee for My Loved One?
Taking responsibility for a disabled family member or minor’s financial needs is extremely important. For the most part, you become responsible for protecting that individual’s lifestyle and using benefits money to pay necessary expenses. The best representative payees will create detailed records, act in the beneficiary’s best interest, and keep their own money separate.
However, you’ll also act as a liaison between the beneficiary and SSA. Informing the agency about any changes is vital for the beneficiary to keep receiving benefits once you’re appointed payee. This “managing someone else’s money” guide provides good information about becoming someone else’s representative payee.
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
What happens if you feel like you don’t need a representative payee anymore (or want to request a new one)? A disability advocate or lawyer can review all your options based on your current situation and then help you decide. Still have questions about how the representative payee program works? Our lawyers are happy to meet you in person and answer our questions, free of charge. All disability lawyers work on contingency, so you’ll pay nothing for professional help filing your SSD claim.
Having a lawyer file your claim makes you 3x more likely to get benefits the first time you apply. Those who qualify for legal assistance usually win $12,000 in lump-sum backpay as well as monthly benefits. People who apply on their own without help often wait 18-24 months to receive benefits, if at all.
Ready to see if you may qualify? Click the button below to start your free disability benefits evaluation now.
Mandy Voisin is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of Girls of the Ocean and Star of Deliverance. As an accomplished content marketing consultant, mom of four and doctor's wife, Mandy has written hundreds of articles about dangerous drugs and medical devices, medical issues that impact disabled Americans, veterans' healthcare and workers' compensation issues since 2016.