What Is a Representative Payee Bank Account?
A representative payee bank account is a type of bank account designed to receive and hold funds for a beneficiary of the Social Security Administration (SSA). A representative payee bank account is usually a checking account, and is managed by a representative payee—either a person or organization that has been appointed to help manage benefit payments for a beneficiary of either Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments.
The representative payee uses the representative payee bank account to accept benefit checks from the SSA and to use the funds to pay for the beneficiary’s needs. The representative payee must also keep track of the transactions going in and out of the account, as the SSA may request a report of accounting to see how the benefits are being used.
- A representative payee bank account is an account used by an appointed person or organization to manage the finances of a Social Security beneficiary.
- Representative payees are chosen by the Social Security Administration to administer the account for a beneficiary—usually an older or disabled person.
- A representative payee must keep records of the account’s transactions for oversight purposes, and if a payee misuses the funds, they could potentially be prosecuted.
What Is a Representative Payee?
Representative payees can either be individuals or organizations, and they are appointed by the SSA to manage a beneficiary’s benefits. They also have fiduciary duties, meaning that they are required by law to manage the funds only in the best interest of the beneficiary. In most cases, a representative payee is a family member.
Who Needs a Representative Payee?
Beneficiaries, particularly of SSI funds, are either older or disabled people who usually have little or no income, and cannot meet their basic needs. There are strict rules and guidelines around what the representative payee can do with the money—for instance, the representative payee cannot pay themselves for assisting the beneficiary. Instead, the benefits must be budgeted for day-to-day living expenses. Food, clothing, and shelter expenses are at the top of the list.
Whether or not a beneficiary needs a representative payee is typically determined when they apply for Social Security benefits. If they’re eligible, they can tell the SSA who they’d like to be their payee, but ultimately, the SSA will make the decision, and send the payee a letter appointing the person or individual. The beneficiary can also appeal the decision if they either don’t agree with the SSA’s choice, or don’t think they need one at all.
There are income and asset limits to qualify for SSI benefits, and representative payees need to take special care to ensure that the beneficiary’s account doesn’t breach those limits—otherwise, the beneficiary risks losing or having them reduced.
More About Representative Payee Bank Accounts
A representative payee bank account isn’t much different from a standard checking or savings account—the primary difference being that the representative payee is specifically named to administer the account, even though the account itself is owned by the beneficiary, says Mary Anne Ehlert, a certified financial planner and founder of Protected Tomorrows, a financial planning firm focused on helping families with members with disabilities.
“They’re basically checking accounts, “Ehlert says, but “the account would have the beneficiary’s Social Security number attached to it and the representative payee’s name as well.”
She adds that the representative payee’s name is noted so that the bank is aware that they have been appointed to administer it.
Modeling these accounts like standard checking accounts also makes it easy for payees to automate expenses, like paying the beneficiary’s rent or utility bills. These accounts can be opened by a beneficiary or a representative payee at most big banks—although some smaller, community banks or credit unions may not offer them.
As for administering the account, the representative payee’s primary function is to make sure that the beneficiary’s money is spent correctly—that it’s used to pay bills and living expenses, and not much else, says Cynthia Haddad, co-founder of Special Needs Financial Planning, a specialty practice of Affinia Financial Group.
“[Payees] can only use the money for the benefits of the beneficiary, such as paying for food, clothing, and shelter,” Haddad says. “The money is meant to be used for that person’s care.”
And to make sure that payees are doing so, the oversight agencies may check in from time to time, usually by sending a letter asking for a transaction record. While it’s unlikely that a full-blown audit could occur, if the agency doesn’t feel that the transaction records are complete, it could decide to initiate a more thorough investigation.
If beneficiaries feel that their representative payees are taking advantage of them, or are otherwise not administering their account properly, they can and should call the SSA immediately. If payees misuse funds, they will need to repay them, or they could face criminal prosecution.
Considerations for Representative Payees
Representative payees carry some significant responsibility, and there are many things that they should take into consideration:
Oversight: As mentioned, oversight agencies may request a record of transactions from a payee. Federal law charges each individual state with monitoring the representative payee system and investigating potential violations.
Spend it, don’t save it: A beneficiary’s money must be spent—it can’t or shouldn’t be saved. If funds are piling up in a beneficiary’s account, it sends a signal to the SSA that the money isn’t needed, and could lead to a beneficiary seeing their benefits reduced or withdrawn completely. “The beneficiary doesn’t want to save it, because that means they may not need it,” says Haddad.
Use ABLE accounts: Achieving a Better Life Expectancy (ABLE) accounts can be important tools for beneficiaries and payees. They function much like 529 plans, and total annual contributions can’t exceed $16,000. So, if a beneficiary does have money to “save,” stashing it in an ABLE account may be the best way to keep it on hand without sending the wrong signal to the SSA.
What Does a Representative Payee Do?
A representative payee manages benefit payments for beneficiaries of Social Security or Supplemental Security Income. Payees are required to use the payments they receive for the needs of the beneficiary and to act in their best interests.
- Determining the beneficiary's needs
- Using the payments to meet those needs
- Saving any money left after meeting the beneficiary’s current needs in an interest-bearing account
- Reporting changes or events that could affect the beneficiary's eligibility
- Keeping records of payments received and how the money was spent or saved
Do Representative Payees Receive a Fee for Services?
No. Individuals are never approved by the Social Security Administration to collect a fee. One exception: Some organizations may collect a fee from a beneficiary's monthly payment for providing services, but this must be approved in writing.
The Bottom Line
Representative payee bank accounts are used by a representative payee to pay bills and other expenses for a beneficiary who receives Social Security or SSI funds. Their job is to make sure the beneficiary’s living expenses are paid with the money in the account, and they must keep a record of the account’s transactions.
These accounts are more or less the same as a standard checking account but include specific language detailing the representative payee’s role in administering it. They’re available at most large banks.