How Does Social Security Choose Your Representative Payee?

You can request a certain person serve as your representative payee to manage your benefits, but Social Security has the final say.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Social Security disability benefits are designed to provide income for you when you have a disability that keeps you from working. But sometimes you may need help managing your money (for instance, if you suffer from addiction or certain mental or cognitive impairments).

If you need help managing your benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) can appoint a "representative payee" or "rep payee" to handle your monthly benefit payments. If you win your Social Security disability benefits on appeal, the administrative law judge (ALJ) in your case could also make this recommendation in the Notice of Decision you receive after your appeal hearing.

How Do Representative Payees Work?

If the SSA or ALJ appoints a representative payee for you, your Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits won't be sent directly to you but will instead be sent to the rep payee. Your representative payee will cash your check but must then use your benefit money on your behalf.

Here's how a representative payee could spend your benefit money:

  • paying your rent or mortgage, utility, and home maintenance bills
  • buying food, clothing, and personal care items for you
  • paying your medical and dental expenses
  • supporting your dependents
  • paying your bills (current and past due)
  • paying for your entertainment, and
  • saving any leftover funds for you.

The payee must keep records of how the money was spent and submit a payee accounting to Social Security each year.

Since your representative payee will have complete control of how your disability benefits are used, you'll need a rep payee who's trustworthy and accountable. So how does the SSA choose your representative payee? Here's how the selection process works.

Who Usually Serves as a Representative Payee?

If you have a legal guardian, the SSA is most likely to select that person to serve as your representative payee. This is because the court would have already approved your guardian as a "fiduciary" (a person with the power and trust to act on your behalf).

If you don't have a guardian, the SSA will look for someone you know fairly well. Your potential representative payee should be someone who:

  • sees you often
  • understands your needs, and
  • wants to help.

Spouses. If you're married, the SSA will usually choose your spouse to serve as your rep payee, provided you live together and your spouse is competent to manage your money. If you live with someone else, whether you're related or not, the SSA will generally select that person to be your rep payee.

Parents. Note that when children receive Social Security disability benefits, a parent is usually selected to serve as a representative payee. But, the SSA will choose someone else if the parent isn't qualified or has a condition that makes them unable to manage money (like a cognitive disorder or drug addiction).

Organizational payees. If the SSA determines that a recipient has both a mental disability and suffers from drug or alcohol abuse, the agency may assign an organizational payee to manage the beneficiary's funds (more on this below). Some nonprofit organizations specialize in assisting clients with these problems and can provide other social services to support their recovery.

Types of Representative Payees

A representative payee can be either an individual or an organization.

Individual Payees

An individual payee is usually a family member, friend, or an attorney. If the SSA selects an individual payee for you, the agency will first conduct a careful investigation to make sure the person is the right choice. If your payee doesn't spend your money on your behalf only, he or she may face criminal charges, so the SSA is selective about who it chooses as a payee.

Organizational Payees

Although the SSA's first choice is usually an individual payee, not all recipients have someone trustworthy who can receive their benefits. If this is true for you and the SSA determines you cannot manage your own funds, the agency will select an organizational payee for you.

An organization payee can be a social service agency, nonprofit organization, health care facility, or government agency. Organizational payees usually serve multiple disability recipients.

To become an organizational payee, a representative from the organization must first file an application while undergoing a face-to-face interview with the SSA. During the interview, the SSA will discuss the following:

  • the relationship between the organization and the beneficiary
  • the organization's qualifications
  • the duties the organization must perform on behalf of the beneficiary, and
  • the accounting requirements of the organization.

Once an organization is designated as a payee, its staff must undergo extensive training. Like individual payees, organizations will face criminal charges if they misuse a beneficiary's funds.

Can I Choose My Own Representative Payee?

If Social Security has notified you that you'll need a representative payee, you can suggest your own rep payee. You'll want to let Social Security know your preference as soon as possible. The SSA will consider your wishes.

Who's Eligible to Serve as a Social Security Rep Payee?

Your rep payee can be a friend or family member you trust. Your proposed payee must meet the SSA's requirements, including having a means of support, such as:

  • a form of employment (a job, a business, or other self-employment)
  • retirement income (including Social Security retirement benefits)
  • Social Security disability benefits of their own, or
  • another source of steady income (like spousal support, veterans benefits, or a trust fund).

Can a Representative Payee Be Disqualified?

Because of the serious responsibilities and the money involved, some conditions can disqualify a proposed rep payee. Any of the following will disqualify someone from serving as an SSA representative payee:

  • a prior violation of the Social Security Act
  • a history of misusing funds during past service as a rep payee
  • having spent a year or more in prison after being convicted of a crime
  • getting their own SSA benefits through a rep payee, or
  • being one of your creditors (someone who provides you with goods or services in exchange for money).

Can I Change My Representative Payee?

If you already have a Social Security representative payee but want someone else to take over that role, you can request a change. First, you should let your current rep payee know you want to make a change. Then, the person you want to take over as your rep payee must fill out an application at a Social Security office.

What If I Don't Know Anyone Who Could Be a Payee?

If you don't know anyone you trust who also meets Social Security's requirements for a representative payee, the SSA can choose an organization to serve as the payee. That could be a social services agency, the nursing home where you live, or a financial institution that offers payee services. Any fees associated with providing this service must be approved by the SSA and would come from your disability benefits.

Social Security will notify you (by mail) when a representative payee has been selected for you. If you disagree with the SSA's choice, you have 60 days to appeal (by letter).

What If I Don't Need a Rep Payee Now, But Expect to Someday?

If you have a condition that is expected to get worse, you might anticipate needing a representative payee at some point down the road. You can have a voice in choosing your rep payee before you need one. The SSA calls this an "advance designation," and it's a pretty straightforward process.

You give Social Security the names of up to three people you trust. And if you ever need a representative payee, the SSA will consider your advance designees first when selecting one for you.

You can submit your advance designation request with your application for disability benefits or after you begin receiving benefits. You can submit your request in several ways, including:

  • online, through your "my Social Security" account
  • by telephone, at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778), or
  • at your local Social Security office.

Social Security will ask for some details about your designated rep payee, including their:

  • name
  • telephone number, and
  • relationship to you.

After submitting your advanced designation request, you'll get a letter from the SSA each year that confirms the name of your designee and includes information about how to update your designation.

Can I Be My Own Social Security Rep Payee?

You can receive your Social Security disability benefits directly as long as the SSA believes that you can manage (or direct the management of) your money. But if you have a condition that prompted the SSA to assign a representative payee, you'll have to prove that you're now capable of managing your money yourself.

Appealing the Decision to Require a Rep Payee

If the SSA notifies you that you need a rep payee, you'll have 60 days to appeal that decision. To win your appeal, you'll need a letter from your doctor or someone else who knows you well stating that you can manage your own money.

Getting Rid of a Rep Payee

If you already have a representative payee and believe you no longer need one, you might be able to get the determination reversed. But you'll have to prove that you can handle your own financial affairs to the SSA. Your proof could be one of the following:

  • a statement from your doctor saying your condition has changed and that you can manage your own affairs
  • proof that you've completed treatment for addiction (if alcohol or drugs were the problem) and that you have ongoing support (like continuing therapy or being in an addiction support group)
  • a certified copy of a court order that indicates that you have the right to take care of yourself and your financial dealings, or
  • other evidence that shows you no longer need someone else to manage your money (like letters from people who know you, including your current rep payee).

Note: If the SSA believes your cognitive or emotional condition has improved enough that you can manage your own money and no longer need a rep payee, Social Security might review your case to see if you're still disabled enough to qualify for benefits. Learn more about what can cause the SSA to stop your disability benefits.

Updated August 31, 2023

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