Q: Our daughter-in-law died in a car accident. Unfortunately, our son is not a responsible parent and our grandchildren live with us. Can we receive the Social Security survivor benefits for the children or must he?
A: With rare exception, Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for minor children are paid to the adult or organization responsible for them. Appointed by Social Security, this person or organization is called a representative payee.
Before being appointed, this third party files an application with Social Security, explains why they should be payee, provides related documentation, and agrees to use benefit funds in the best interest of the child.
Representative payees receive instruction about how funds are to be used and what records must be kept. Appointment as representative payee concerns only Social Security or SSI funds, not any other income that might be involved. The main responsibilities of a payee are to use benefits to pay for current and foreseeable needs of the beneficiary and properly save any benefits not needed to meet current needs. A payee must also keep records of expenses and provide accountings to Social Security.
Agency guidelines exist for representative payee selection with the main concern being what appears to be the best interest of the child. High on the usual list of preferred payees is a parent with custody but even this is not a given. For example, if that parent was unable to properly direct the use of funds he or she might not be payee.
Coming to your question, as a close relative with custody you can be representative payee and should contact your local Social Security office to discuss this. Payees can be changed as needed.
It is not an absolute that your son must be representative payee for Social Security survivors benefits to his children. It is also not an absolute that you should be. Here are some questions for consideration. Who is actually legally responsible for the children? Are you legal guardian or do the children live with you through an informal agreement with their father? Does your son not being responsible mean that you disagree with his decisions or were the children neglected? Is the family working with an agency such as your county social services?
While today’s question is about minor children, adults will have a representative payee appointed if they are unable to manage and direct the use of their own Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. Having power of attorney, being an authorized representative or having a joint bank account with a person is not the same as being their payee. These arrangements do not give legal authority to negotiate and manage a SSA or SSI payments. To be a representative payee, a person or organization must apply and be appointed by Social Security.