Q : My dad is 90 years old and I help him with medical appointments and managing important business affairs. We went to our local Social Security office to change dad’s address. While there, I asked to be added to dad’s account so that I can make inquiries on his behalf. The clerk signed me up to be his “representative payee.” Then a few weeks later, I got a letter explaining that I now was the only person responsible for dad’s Social Security account — a designation that included reporting requirements to the government. That is NOT what I wanted. So we went back asking to revoke the representative payee status. This time, a different clerk told us we could not do that without a doctor’s note to say that dad can manage his own affairs. I got the doctor’s note, and we went back to social security office. Yet another clerk then made dad his own representative payee. So now, I’ve just transferred the burden of reporting to my father! Is there any way to explain things better to the folks at the Social Security office to get things back to dad’s original status? We just want him to be a regular person getting his Social Security in the regular way without all this payee stuff. Can you help me sort this out?
A: First of all, let me reassure you that based on what you told me, everything seems to be back to normal. Your dad is just “a regular person getting his Social Security checks in the regular way.” But now let me review what happened in your case to explain how Social Security handles these cases.
I must start out by making this important point: The Social Security Administration is very strict about privacy laws. Back when I was first hired by SSA in 1973 and sent to a training class, we spent the entire first day reviewing the privacy laws of Social Security records. Those laws require that NO information from your Social Security record can be disclosed to anyone else. Not even to a spouse, a grown child or a close relative. Because of those privacy laws, there is simply no way you could simply be “added to dad’s account.”
But the law does allow someone to handle a relative’s or friend’s Social Security account IF that person is judged to be mentally incapable of handling his or her own affairs. And SSA calls that person a “representative payee.” So the only way you could be added to your dad’s account was to be named his payee.
And being a payee means you are not only responsible for receiving and spending your dad’s Social Security checks, but also you are required to report to SSA (usually once a year) how you spent his funds.
It sounds like when you learned that, you decided you didn’t want to be your dad’s payee. So you went back to your Social Security office to reverse things. But frankly, I’m a little puzzled how you managed to do that. And here is why.
Remember, I said that a representative payee can only be appointed if someone has been judged to be mentally incapable of handling his or her own Social Security affairs. So to be named your father’s payee in the first place, a doctor or other medical professional had to sign a form saying your dad was not capable of handling his affairs. And that means that to get yourself off of your dad’s record as his rep payee, some other doctor had to sign a different form saying your dad was capable of handling his own affairs.
I hope you understand how confusing this sounds. But it does seem like the third SSA clerk you dealt with straightened everything out. You used the wrong term by saying they “changed the representative payee to dad.” I mean, every person getting his or her own Social Security check is technically his or her own payee, though not a formal “representative payee” in the legal sense of the term. So that’s why I am pretty sure things are back to normal. Your dad is now simply getting his own checks like he always was before.
Having said all that, we can get back to your original issue. I know you are simply trying to help your father handle some of his Social Security issues. You certainly can do that on an informal basis. I’m sure there are millions of sons and daughters out there helping a very elderly mother or father. But because of those privacy laws I mentioned earlier, that help has to remain at home and remain informal. You just won’t be able to contact or deal with the Social Security Administration on your dad’s behalf — as long as he remains mentally capable of handling his own affairs.
Q: I have power of attorney for my mother. Yet, when I went to our local Social Security office to try to change her direct deposit account from her old bank to my bank, they wouldn’t let me do it. They said my power of attorney status meant nothing to them. They told me that my mom has to request the change herself. I explained to them that my mother was old and that it is difficult for her to get around. But that didn’t seem to faze them. How can I convince them that my power of attorney status gives me the right to handle all my mom’s legal affairs, including Social Security?
A: You can’t convince them, because it’s not true. Your power of attorney status is essentially meaningless for Social Security purposes. Why? Because you can get yourself appointed power of attorney for a variety of reasons, including the fact that you just want to help your mom out. In other words, your mom may be mentally capable of handling her affairs, but she just needs some assistance. And to re-emphasize the point I made about privacy in my answer to the first question, if she is mentally competent, then her Social Security records and information can only be disclosed to her. So if she wants her checks now sent to your bank account, she should call SSA at 800-772-1213 to request the change.
If she is not capable of handling her own affairs, then you need to get yourself appointed as her representative payee.