Only the Social Security Administration (SSA) can formally appoint a representative payee to manage benefits for someone unable to do so for themselves — for example, a young child, a person with severe physical disabilities or an older adult with cognitive impairments.
However, you do have the option to select up to three people ahead of time who could serve as your payee should the need arise. This “advance designation” is not an appointment, but the SSA is legally obligated to give strong weight to your choices.
Advance designation was put in place in early 2020 as part of an amendment to Social Security law that Congress passed two years earlier aimed at strengthening the representative payee program. Payees are tasked with receiving a beneficiary’s monthly payments and ensuring the money is used to meet that person’s essential and personal needs, such as shelter, food, medical care, clothing and recreation.
As of December 2020, more than 5 million Social Security recipients had payees, according to SSA data. Most are minors or adults disabled since childhood, but more than 1.4 million retired and disabled workers, their spouses or their survivors have someone else managing their benefits, typically a family member or close friend. Nearly 1 in 10 adult workers receiving disability benefits have a representative payee.
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How advance designation works
Any adult who is applying for or receiving Social Security benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can make an advance designation, as long as they are still capable of managing their payments at the time. (Child claimants and beneficiaries cannot designate a payee unless they have been declared an “emancipated minor” under the laws of their state.)
You can submit your list online if you have a My Social Security account or by phone to the SSA’s national hotline, 800-772-1213. You can change your choices or withdraw advance designation altogether at any time. Social Security will contact you annually to check if you want to review or update your selections.
Your designation comes into play if the SSA determines, based on evidence such as interaction with you, medical records or information from a loved one, that you are no longer capable of managing benefits on your own and require a representative payee.
The SSA still must vet any payee candidates, including your selections. But under the Strengthening Protections for Social Security Beneficiaries Act of 2018, the law that established advance designation, the agency must consider your choices first, in your listed order, and appoint the first one who meets the criteria to serve in the role.
Essentially, that means the person is willing and able to fulfill the duties of a representative payee and does not show good cause to be disqualified under SSA regulations. Reasons for rejection can include a felony conviction, being a creditor of the beneficiary, or having misused benefit payments in a prior stint as a payee. Only if all of your designees are found unsuitable will Social Security consider other options.
Keep in mind
- You aren't required to make an advance designation. It's strictly voluntary.
- Organizations can serve as representative payees in some circumstances — for example, a nursing home might be tapped to manage benefits for a resident or residents. However, you cannot advance-designate an organization, only individuals.
- The SSA keeps your advance designation on file even if your benefit claim is denied or you stop receiving benefits, so the agency can still access it if you are subsequently awarded benefits via reapplication, reinstatement or appeal.
Published October 6, 2021