Opinion: Columnist Turns a Molehill Into a Mountain – Creators

Several readers shared with me a story that ran in many newspapers around the country headlined: “Social Security Hell.” It relayed the story of the columnist’s ongoing efforts to correct the date of birth in his 98-year-old mother’s Social Security records.

On the surface, it seems like it should be something simple to do. But the columnist ran into all kinds of bureaucratic roadblocks when trying to deal with agents from both the Medicare and Social Security agencies. (The problem involved an incorrect date of birth in Medicare’s files, but those files are linked to Social Security Administration records, so the columnist ended up having to work with SSA reps.)

I’m not going to detail all the problems he encountered here. But I can share what the crux of the issue turned out to be. The guy’s long saga of trying to help his mother boils down to a rather simple issue: the very strict rules about the privacy of each person’s Social Security records. So, in other words, what he called “Social Security hell” was just an issue of keeping his mother’s records private. If he would have been instructed to file to be her “representative payee” right from the start, this “hell” would never have happened. I wrote a column about this a couple years ago. I’m going to dust it off to finish today’s column.

Social Security rules have always been very strict about the privacy of someone’s records. For example, there is no way I could get any Social Security information about any one of my readers from the Social Security Administration. And you couldn’t get any information about me. In fact, I couldn’t even get information about my wife. If I called the SSA tomorrow and asked, “Can you tell me how much my wife is getting in monthly benefits?” — they would correctly tell me, “Sorry, sir, that information is private, and we can’t disclose it to you.”

Those privacy laws are the premise behind the supposed “hell” the columnist ran into trying to help his mother change her date of birth. You just can’t make any changes to, or get any information about, someone’s Social Security records without his or her permission. It’s as simple as that.

I can hear many of you saying: “But come on, Tom; this guy is just trying to help his mother get her date of birth changed.” And I understand that point. But you’ve got to understand that the law is very clear on this. As long as people are (SET ITAL) mentally capable (END ITAL) of handling their own Social Security affairs, they have that right to the privacy of their records.

And those two words, “mentally capable,” are the key to the columnist being able to help his mother with her Social Security affairs. Or to turn that around, if she is mentally incapable of handling her own business with Social Security, the columnist can be appointed what the SSA calls her “representative payee.”
When that happens, his mother’s Social Security checks will come in his name and be sent to her bank account, the columnist’s account or a joint account that he might set up. And once the columnist is named his mother’s representative payee, he can (and must) handle all her other Social Security affairs — including changing her date of birth in Social Security and Medicare records.

However, if this guy’s mom is just having a hard time getting around but is still in a good mental state, then she (with whatever help someone can give her) is going to have to take care of her own Social Security business. For example, with the columnist’s help, she can call the SSA at 800-772-1213 or go online at www.socialsecurity.gov to change her date of birth.

If the columnist becomes his mother’s representative payee, that designation comes with some important responsibilities. Primarily, he is going to have to periodically account for how he spent her Social Security money. The SSA will send him a form (usually once a year) asking him to show what he did with his mother’s Social Security money. Most of the time, that entails showing that he paid her rent, bought her groceries, paid her utility bills, etc.

It’s nice that this columnist is eager and willing to help his mother. But there are times when that doesn’t happen. Someone may need a payee, but no one is willingly coming forward to serve in that role. The SSA has a list of preferred payees, with close family members or those who have custody of the Social Security beneficiary at the top of the list. And sometimes if a person is in an institution, like a nursing home or other care facility, it’s just easiest to have the benefits sent directly to that institution.

There are also times when there can be a family squabble over who should be the payee for a mentally incompetent person. Different family members will each insist that the benefits be paid to themselves. Then the SSA has to investigate, usually using that aforementioned list of preferred payees, and decide who is the proper person for that role.

There are also times when one family member will accuse another family member of misusing the Social Security funds for an incapable Social Security beneficiary. Once again, the SSA must step into the middle of these family quarrels and figure out what is going on.

A lot of this can be avoided with what the SSA calls an “advance designation of representative payee.” If you are a Social Security beneficiary who is still in good mental health, you can contact your Social Security office and name someone you would prefer to be your payee if the need ever arises. This could avoid a lot of hassles later on.

Before I close, let me make one final point. Many times, people will say, “I don’t need to be made my mother’s representative payee. I have been appointed to be her power of attorney. But power of attorney is essentially a meaningless designation for Social Security purposes. For example, you could be appointed power of attorney for someone who is mentally competent but just needs help with legal and other matters. So that power of attorney status gives you absolutely no right to violate the law that says the SSA has to keep everyone’s Social Security records private.