Being A Rep Payee - Not an Easy Undertaking in Some Cases
by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
At times, the Social Security Administration determines that a beneficiary is incapable of managing his or her funds for a variety of reasons. When situations like this arise, they appoint a suitable representative payee who manages the payments on behalf of the beneficiaries. Although they ideally seek a family member or friend, they also use qualified organizations like Connelly Law to act as a rep payee.
Unfortunately, it is becoming more difficult to find family members or friends to act in this capacity due to the activities of some beneficiaries, namely substance abuse. To be clear, SSA no longer considers an individual to be disabled solely as a result of a substance abuse problem. This did exist, however, until 1996 when federal law eliminated alcoholism and addiction as grounds for benefits. However, a claim for SSDI or SSI benefits cannot be denied because of drinking or drug use if a medical condition that meets benefit criteria exists.
Because of this, those approved for benefits and are drug or alcohol abusers can lead to havoc for rep payees. In the over 30 years I worked in the substance abuse treatment field, I have seen many families torn apart when trying to help a loved one handle their finances. As a result, I strongly recommended that professional social service organizations do this work, but even they are starting to drop out of this program due to the enormous amount of time that must be invested with a small financial return and often contentious battles that occur between the payee and the beneficiary.
A Constant Battle
One family I worked with from Marblehead, Massachusetts best exemplifies what can happen when a family member is a rep payee for someone with a qualifying mental illness and an accompanying substance use disorder. The beneficiary, whom I’ll call Charles, had multiple relapse episodes despite the family’s best efforts to keep him clean and sober. Eventually, he moved in with his sister and her family and she became the rep payee for him.
All would have gone well if Charles had been told yes to his money requests, but when the relapse occurred, the relationship went bad in a hurry. Charles ended up stealing jewelry from his sister, a piggy bank belonging to his niece and pawned tools that were stolen from the garage that belonged to his brother-in-law. These behaviors caused a major rift in the family unit when the brother-in-law told Charles to leave the house and move into a homeless shelter, something his sister did not agree with.
Soon, Charles was calling the house non-stop, at all hours of the day and night asking for money from his SSI account. When his sister refused, he began to call her job multiple times daily which nearly resulted in her being fired. When his brother-in-law stepped in and threatened to obtain a restraining order, Charles backed off and instead began loitering around his niece’s high school, accosting her, asking that she convince her mother to give him money.
One afternoon, Charles became extremely aggressive, scaring his niece who ran back into the school fearing for her safety. The principal contacted the police and Charles was arrested and sent to detox and treatment. His sister gave up the rep payee position to an agency that specialized in this work.
"He used every emotion imaginable from guilt to anger to get access to his money, even stating that my husband was spending the money on himself. It is something I would never want to experience again."
“I love my brother,” she said, “but what he put me and my family through was sheer hell. He used every emotion imaginable from guilt to anger to get access to his money, even stating that my husband was spending the money on himself. It is something I would never want to experience again.”
A similar scenario occurred when a man named Jeff from the Fall River area came to counseling to find out ways he could help his sister manage her funds. He had taken on managing her money as the rep payee. "No one else would do it, and I thought she would respect me since I did so much for her," he said.
Melissa had depression, severe pancreatitis, and a cirrhotic liver which resulted in her approval for SSI. She also was an alcoholic and used crack cocaine, and constantly called her brother for money from her check. "She had low-cost housing, food stamps, and other social service benefits so she would have about $600 left over every month that I tried to dole out for her living expenses. If I said no, she would become angry and even vengeful."
In some cases, Melissa enlisted some of her “street friends” to confront Jeff when he was leaving the gym and even made threatening calls to his job. Still, Jeff understood addiction and mental illness, made excuses for her behavior, and continued to try and support her. Anne ended up breaking into his house and stealing a coin collection and several valuable cameras. Her answer when confronted was, "What did you expect, I'm an addict!"
In counseling, Jeff became angry when Melissa said it was his fault, she did what she did. “Are you blaming me for all of this?”, Jeff asked angrily. Melissa sat back and said, without emotion, “Well, you shouldn't have shown me your coin collection. "I’m an addict, you know what we do.” At that point, Jeff walked out, and the next day resigned as her rep payee. Several months later, Jeff told me it was the best decision he ever made.
"The scenarios cited above do not occur in every case. We don't have these issues when it comes to elder exploitation concerns," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Those are relatively straightforward money managing matters and those who were intent on exploiting a beneficiary steer clear when they know that another set of eyes is watching. Unfortunately, we are seeing increased requests to be a rep payee for beneficiaries who have behavioral needs that must be managed by mental health and medical professionals. To deal with this, we have put a process in place to protect all concerned."
Managing Money Not Client Behaviors
"After speaking with numerous social service and mental health professionals, we have put into place a rep payee program is designed to live to the true meaning of what the program is all about, protecting the client to ensure that they have the money needed to live as well as protect them from the reasons a rep payee was determined to be needed in the first place," said Attorney Connelly.
Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. collaborates with the client and the case manager/counselor to ensure that the budget developed between the client and the case manager/counselor is followed and that all bills and expenses are paid in a timely manner.
"We have put this process in place due to the nature of the activity we have been seeing," said Attorney Connelly. "Our office provides expert elder law and professional fiduciary services but has no ability to act as therapists. Our staff is not trained to provide that kind of care. In the past, we have had clients call up, obviously intoxicated or under the influence of a substance, requesting emergency money be placed on their card. This money could well be used to purchase additional substances that could cause serious or even deadly problems for the client. Doing so does not fit into the intent of the rep payee program, where payees are put into place to protect the client."
"Our office provides expert elder law and professional fiduciary services but has no ability to act as therapists. Our staff is not trained to provide that kind of care." --Attorney RJ Connelly III
The SSA requires that payees do their due diligence when taking on this role. According to their website, "A representative payee (payee) manages benefit payments for our beneficiaries who are incapable of managing their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. Social Security laws and regulations require payees to use the payments they receive for the current needs of the beneficiary and in their best interests. While serving as a representative payee, we encourage you to go beyond just managing payments and be actively involved in the beneficiary’s life."
"It certainly is not in the client's best interests to act as an enabler or approve money that could cause harm to them. By requiring the client to request funds from a case manager or social worker, they are being seen by a professionally trained third party who will assess and determine the condition of that individual," continued Attorney Connelly. "This provides a firewall, so to speak, to keep the client safe and allows the mental health or medical professional to assist that person to get help if it is needed or to ascertain if the request for funds is for a legitimate purpose."
Totally Automated System
The attractive aspect of our rep payee program is that our system is totally automated. Each month, there will be contact between our fiduciary department and the client’s case manager/counselor to obtain a copy of the budget that has been developed by the client and the case manager/counselor with the bills and expenses to be reimbursed/paid. Our fiduciary department will take these numbers and schedule the payments using our TrueLink Visa Card payment system.
By using this automated system, we remove the power struggles that often occur between the client, case manager/counselor, and the representative payee. This also puts into place a structure that encourages the client to live within the agreed-upon budget thereby complying with the Social Security and/or Veterans Administration determination that a representative payee was required in the best interest of the recipient.
The True Link Visa Card comes with a spending monitor to help protect daily spending and help prevent fraud by customizing where the Visa card works, and where it doesn’t. It allows our office to monitor spending and provide reports for audits. It also allows us to:
Block trouble spots like liquor stores and casinos.
Allow or block access to cash and ATMs.
Set spending limits for certain stores and categories of spending.
Uses Scamwatch™ technology developed by True Link to block merchants and businesses identified as potentially predatory.
Guidelines for Representative Payee Clients
In order to provide the best service for representative payee clients and to meet the intent of SSA's representative payee system, we do have a set of guidelines in place:
Clients must be able to provide proper identification – photo identification and a social security card upon application.
Clients must sign a release of information consent as this will assist Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. to better serve the client by allowing communication with mental health, social services, family members, landlords, and social security.
Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. will request a copy of a biopsychosocial assessment, if available, to better understand why we have been requested to a representative payee.
It is the responsibility of the case manager/counselor and the client to provide the billing addresses of all vendors (i.e. Metro PCS, etc.) that Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. will be responsible for submitting payment.
All questions for Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. are to be directed to the client's case manager/counselor. Clients are to contact them about any questions or concerns they may have regarding payments. For example, questions about amounts or bills to be paid. Remember, this is an automated system and any calls to us will only result in a referral back to the client's case manager/counselor for any budget adjustments.
The client's case manager/counselor will be responsible for providing Connelly Law Offices with any changes in payments or personal expenses to be paid. This is expected to be done monthly using the budget worksheet that we provide.
Special requests for funds must be made by the client's case manager/counselor only. We will not take calls directly from the client. Not all special requests can be approved in a timely manner.
If a new case manager/counselor is assigned, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. must be notified immediately otherwise this could result in a delay in payment and the release of funds to the client.
Everyone receiving representative payee services is required to follow the guidelines and terms of the case manager/counselor and Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. Remember, all representative payees hold a responsibility to the funding authority and all monies must be spent in the best interest of the client.
The client's inability to cooperate with the terms and conditions of our representative payee services may result in termination from our program.
"We take the role of representative payee very seriously and see ourselves as part of a team that includes the beneficiary, the social worker and/or case manager, and the family members," said Attorney Connelly. "We want to know why a representative payee is needed for the beneficiary and having that knowledge and a team in place, we can meet the task to spend in the best interests of that individual."