Representative Payees and Social Security

Representative Payees Provide Vital Support to Millions of Social Security Beneficiaries

Connie, 86, lost her husband, Joe, to cancer a few years ago. Without children or other family members to help, and dealing with her own dementia-related challenges, she’s finding it increasingly difficult to manage her day-to-day finances and expenses, which she pays almost exclusively with her monthly Social Security income. She recently received a letter from her bank saying there were insufficient funds in her checking account to cover some groceries she purchased.

Millions of Social Security beneficiaries like Connie need help managing their benefits. To meet this need, the Social Security Administration designates a representative payee in certain situations to ensure a beneficiary’s benefits are spent in his or her best interest. Representative payees are often family members or friends, but they can also be nonprofit agencies or even nursing homes. Once designated, a representative payee receives the beneficiary’s monthly Social Security payment and spends it on food, utilities and other essential items. Representative payee expenditures may be subject to monitoring by the Social Security Administration.

Representative payees are vital to the well-being of millions of Social Security beneficiaries, and most perform their duties well; nevertheless, the program can be strengthened. A new report from the AARP Public Policy Institute describes the representative payee program, assesses areas of concern, and presents ideas to improve the system. Today, about 550,000 retired Social Security beneficiaries or their spouses, and another one million disabled adult workers have a representative payee. Given projected increases in the numbers of older individuals requiring assistance with financial matters, the issue is more relevant and timely than ever, and will continue to be so over the coming decades.

As the Public Policy Institute report discusses, proper safeguards are necessary to maintain the security of some of our most vulnerable citizens. In particular, improvements to the program should include policies that:

 

  • make it easy to identify beneficiaries needing representative payees;
  • improve communication across different agencies to ensure status consistency for beneficiaries in different programs;
  • create levels of assistance that include those less obtrusive than designating a representative payee, thus recognizing the significant variance in ability among beneficiaries;
  • improve methods for monitoring spending; and
  • quickly identify and ban representative payees who misuse funds.

 

This report shines a light on the vital work of representative payees, and all they do for helping people like Connie, who need help managing their benefits. Improvements to the program can make sure it serves the needs of our most vulnerable citizens better.

Jim Palmieri, PhD, is a Senior Strategic Policy Advisor in AARP’s Public Policy Institute, focusing on Social Security, Retirement, and Financial Security.