This is going to be a column about people who need help managing their Social Security affairs.
People frequently send me emails about this topic. A typical email might go something like this: “My 90-year-old grandmother has a hard time getting around and managing all of her affairs. I had myself granted power of attorney so that I can help her do things. But when I recently called Social Security to change my grandma’s direct deposit address for her Social Security checks, they said my grandma had to do it herself. Don’t they understand what ‘power of attorney’ means?”
Believe me, SSA understands what that means. But what the folks who send these kinds of questions to me don’t understand is that “power of attorney” is essentially a meaningless designation for Social Security purposes. Let me explain.
Social Security rules have always been very strict about the privacy of someone’s records. For example, there is no way I could get any Social Security information about any one of my readers from the Social Security Administration. And you couldn’t get any information about me. In fact, I couldn’t even get information about my wife. If I called SSA tomorrow and asked, “Can you tell me how much my wife is getting in monthly benefits?”—they would correctly tell me, “Sorry, sir; that information is private, and we can’t disclose it to you.”
Those privacy laws are behind SSA’s rules regarding trying to help your grandma (or anyone else for that matter) with their Social Security affairs. Having “power of attorney” over someone gives you absolutely no right to violate the law that says SSA has to keep our Social Security records private.
I can hear many of you saying: “But come on, Tom; this lady is just trying to help her grandma get her bank address changed.” And I understand that point. But you’ve got to understand that the law is very clear on this. As long as people are mentally capable of handling their own Social Security affairs, they have that right to the privacy of their records.
Those two words, “mentally capable,” are the keys to being able to help grandma with her Social Security affairs. Or to turn that around, if she is mentally incapable of handling her own business with Social Security, you, or some other close family member, can be appointed what SSA calls her “representative payee.”
When that happens, grandma’s Social Security checks will come in your name and be sent to her bank account, your account, or some kind of joint account that you set up. And once you are named her representative payee, you can (and must) handle all her other Social Security affairs.
So, if grandma is just having a hard time getting around but she is still in a good mental state, then she (with whatever help you can give her) is going to have to take care of her own Social Security business. For example, with your help, she can call SSA at 800-772-1213 or go online at SocialSecurity.gov to change her direct deposit information.
But if grandma ever reaches the point where she is no longer mentally capable of dealing with Social Security matters, then call SSA and file to be her representative payee. You will fill out a short form and you will be asked to get a doctor or some other medical professional to sign a statement indicating that your grandma is no longer mentally able to handle her Social Security affairs.
Once your claim is approved, grandma’s checks will come in your name. For example, if you are Jane Doe and she is Mary Doe, the account will show benefits payable to “Jane Doe for Mary Doe.”
Along with the representative payee designation comes some important responsibilities. Primarily, you are going to have to periodically account for how you spent her money. SSA will send you a form (usually once a year) asking you to show what you did with grandma’s Social Security money. Most of the time, that entails showing that you paid her rent, bought her groceries, paid her utility bills, etc.
By the way, there are some representative payee situations where an annual accounting is not required. For example, if a parent is a payee for a minor child, or one spouse is payee for another spouse, SSA will not require you to complete the annual accounting form. Still, these folks should keep records of how they spend the Social Security money just in case there are issues and SSA asks for the evidence.
It’s nice that your grandma has someone like you who is looking after her. But there are times when that doesn’t happen. Someone may need a payee, but no one is willingly coming forward to serve in that role. SSA has a list of preferred payees, with close family members or those who have custody of the Social Security beneficiary at the top of the list. And sometimes if a person is in an institution, like a nursing home or other care facility, it’s just easiest to have the benefits sent directly to that institution.
There are also times when there can be a family squabble over who should be the payee for a mentally incompetent person. Different family members will each insist that the benefits be paid to themselves. Then SSA must investigate, usually using that aforementioned list of preferred payees, and decide who is the proper person for that role.
There are also times when one family member will accuse another family member of misusing the Social Security funds meant for an incapable Social Security beneficiary. Once again, SSA has to step into the middle of these family quarrels and figure out what is going on.
A lot of this can be avoided with what SSA calls an “advance designation of representative payee.” If you are a Social Security beneficiary who is still in good mental health, you can contact SSA and name someone you would prefer to be your payee if the need ever arises. This could avoid a lot of hassles later on.