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April 01, 2015

Social Security Seeks Pro Bono Lawyers to Meet Need for Representative Payees

Janet Truhe

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: (Bifocal, Vol. 36, Issue 4).)

Currently, more than 8 million people who receive Social Security benefits are unable to manage those benefits due to mental or physical impairments or youth. For those beneficiaries, the Social Security Administration (SSA) appoints a “representative payee” who receives the monthly benefits directly and uses those funds to meet the beneficiary’s basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Representative payees play a significant role in the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our communities—the elderly, the disabled, and the young.1

When selecting a representative payee, SSA usually considers trusted family members or friends. For many beneficiaries, however, this traditional network of support is not available, and it can be difficult for SSA to find other responsible people to serve. A 2013 Government Accountability Office report stated that, over the next two decades, the proportion of elderly individuals is projected to grow to nearly 20 percent of the total population, and it is estimated that the number of aged beneficiaries could increase from over 38 million in 2012 to over 72 million in 2035.2 With this projected growth in the elderly population and the number of baby boomers entering their disability-prone years, SSA will continue to face challenges in meeting the critical need for suitable people to serve as representative payees.

SSA is considering several long-term strategies to address these challenges. It is currently exploring one potentially promising alternative to expand the pool of suitable representative payee candidates by recruiting attorneys to serve on a pro bono basis. Recently, the agency announced the implementation of a pro bono pilot in the State of Maryland (where SSA is headquartered), which is aimed at expanding the pool of suitable representative payee candidates statewide. SSA believes that partnership with the legal community for this purpose is a natural fit. As SSA’s Acting Commissioner, Carolyn W. Colvin, noted, “Attorneys are held to high ethical standards and will serve this at-risk population with the compassion and integrity they deserve.”3

One particular advantage of this pro bono opportunity is that any attorney, regardless of his or her specialty, can serve as a representative payee with SSA providing any needed assistance. SSA has created a web site for attorney volunteers with training and other information about the role of a representative payee. Any licensed attorney in Maryland, or in neighboring jurisdictions, who would like to volunteer as a representative payee for a beneficiary residing in Maryland can go to and complete an online registration form. SSA will send the volunteer attorney’s contact information to the servicing local field office. When SSA needs a representative payee for a particular beneficiary, that field office will contact one of the volunteer attorneys and make an appointment for the attorney to come in for an interview and meet the beneficiary.

After SSA appoints the volunteer attorney as a representative payee, that attorney is responsible for keeping a record of how the benefits are spent. Another representative payee responsibility is to notify SSA about any changes that may affect the payment of benefits, such as when a beneficiary moves or returns to work. Representative payees are encouraged to take an active interest in the welfare of their beneficiaries and to make any referrals to appropriate agencies, if they become aware of any issues concerning the health, safety, or possible financial exploitation of their beneficiaries.

SSA is hopeful that attorneys in Maryland and the neighboring area will be interested in this pro bono opportunity. Depending on the success of this pilot, SSA would like to expand it to other states.

How to volunteer: Visit SSA’s representative payee pro bono pilot web site at and complete an online registration form.

For more information: Contact Janet Truhe ([email protected]) or email [email protected].

1 There are two major benefit programs administered by the Social Security Administration. The larger of these programs is the Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program. It protects workers and their families from a loss of earnings due to death, retirement, or disability. The other program is the Supplemental Security Income program. It is needs-based and makes payments to individuals who are blind, disabled, or age 65 or older if they meet certain eligibility requirements, including limited income and resources.

2 SSA Representative Payee Program: Long-Term Strategy Needed to Address Challenges, GAO-13-6737T at p. 3 (Washington, D.C.: June 5, 2013).

3 Social Security announces representative payee pro bono pilot (La Velle, 2014) at!/post/10-2014-1.

Janet Truhe

Janet Truhe is a Social Insurance Specialist at the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, Maryland. Before joining SSA, she was engaged in the private practice of law.