Help my sister without giving my husband a heart attack?
January 30, 2008 7:59 PM   Subscribe

How do I tell my husband about being representative payee for my sister's SSI payments? We've helped her before, and they don't get along.

My sister is about to start getting SSI for a combination of bipolar disorder and some mobility issues. The Social Security people decided that she needs a representative payee: someone to receive and distribute her payments.

We have an occasionally tense relationship, and it was a difficult decision for me to agree to do this. I am the only family she has in the area.

The kicker is that she and my husband have a very bad relationship. We gave her a lot of help about 9 or 10 years ago when she was having some life challenges, and it was not a good experience. I am somewhat used to how my sister is, but he was not, and was furious about what he felt was her being a slacker and us being taken for granted.

He know that she has applied for SSI, and finds the whole thing appalling.

I want to tell him that I'm going to be doing this, and can't seem to find a way to be graceful about it and reassure him that it won't take over our life as with the previous situation.

I'm meeting with her caseworker on Friday. I don't know how long it will take after that.

A few extra points:

She doesn't have a substance abuse problem, just irresponsible and ungrateful.

I'm planning on making this as automatic as possible: direct deposit, online bill paying, etc. I may need to meet with my sister a couple of times a month to make sure she has pocket cash.

She lives with her boyfriend. He's been supporting her for a while. He and I are not close at all, and he and my husband have only met once or twice. He's stoic, in what I imagine is a midwestern style. Some of the money for bills will probably be going directly to him.

My husband has a reasonably good relationship with the rest of my family, particularly my other sibling.

Suggestions for opening the conversation? Have I made a mistake by not mentioning this sooner? Can I just continue to keep this secret?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wouldn't your husband like the idea of someone being a payee? Since he thinks that your sister is irresponsible. And she could end up with someone not-good as a payee. Plus, it's not like it's your money.

Re getting SSI -- could you just look your husband in the eye and say, "um, do you really think she's ready to take care of herself?"

Developmentally, it may actually be progress for her to be in a system of care (of sorts), as opposed to bugging you and your husband for money.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:23 PM on January 30, 2008

Don't bring it up. When (not if) he finds out, and he's all "why didn't you tell me?" then that's (a) the conversation opened (b) your cue to say that you didn't know how to tell him without upsetting him, but that when all's said and done she's your sister and you didn't feel that not helping was a choice you could live with. Plus, after ten years it's time for another try.

As long as you absolutely prioritize the bill paying stuff, and never never never let your sister dip into the bills fund for extra pocket cash, what's the worst that could happen?
posted by flabdablet at 8:29 PM on January 30, 2008

"So, honey, how would you feel if we had to give my sister X dollars every month?"
"I can't imagine anything worse."
"Well, then it's a good thing she's getting money from the state, and I'm just in charge of disbursing it."
posted by Krrrlson at 8:35 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your sister can always find another payee. There is no way to make a husband feel okay about being deceived. I don't know if there is a good way to open the conversation because your husband has made his feelings pretty clear it seems. You are in a sticky situation. I think they both deserve your loyalty but it is clear who has been the most loyal to you in the are married to him. This is a time when his feelings could really get hurt.

It is very generous to agree to be your sister's payee. Perhaps your husband is worried about you getting too involved in her life if you are her payee. He might be worried about boundaries here. Have you considered getting a payee for her that you hire? There are payees available like that for generally about $35 per month. Maybe you could pay the fee for her if you want to help her but not be too involved? Just a thought.

My neighbor has her sister as her payee and she has similar issues as the ones you describe your sister having. My neighbor is always complaining to me and other neighbors that she believes her sister is not properly handling her money and she wonders where the hell it all goes. She tells me about her horrible sister every time she comes over to ask me to lend her money (she keeps asking day after day, I keep saying 'nope'). Her sister just wants to help her, she doesn't know she is being talked about that way. Not that your sister would do that to you...I'm just telling you about how it is with my neighbor. I suspect the payee sister would be deeply offended if she knew what was being said about her by her ungrateful sister.

Basically I am saying you might want to: 1. consider protecting yourself and your relationship with your sister by at least giving your husband the feeling that he has power to decide in this situation; 2. consider paying someone else to be her payee.
posted by mamaraks at 8:35 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think you made a mistake. That being said, not disclosing this would be a bigger mistake. Your husband will probably be hurt that you didn't include him in the process and hurt that you put your sister's needs above seeking his input, but at least if you tell him now he can still feel somewhat included in the process. And (after apologizing) if you approach it the way Krrrlson recommends, he might actually come to embrace the idea.
posted by Happydaz at 8:48 PM on January 30, 2008

Having more than one bipolar person, I can relate. They can be infuriating, frustrating, cloying, and just all around toxic. But they are family.

That being said, I understand why you decided to take on the responsibility and the tension you're concerned about with you husband.

I think you're right to tell him, and expect an unpleasant reaction. Let him work through it. I'd outline everything carefully and go over it after he's calmed down. Discuss his fears and concerns and talk about your strategy for not letting the situation turn unpleasant like your previous experience. Ask him what limits he would feel comfortable with. An organized plan (ie if this happens, then we will do that) can help both of you feel more in control.

Also, be honest about why you're doing this. Depending on the severity of her dysfunction, your sister simply can not function like a someone who is fully mentally equipped. No, that does not get her off the hook in regards to responsibility, (she certainly does not sound like she's trying very hard.) But your involvement in her life is something that only family members do -- we forgive and we help.

It's something your husband will understand or he won't, either way he does need to know. Marriage doesn't happen in a vacuum; in a way you both took on each other's history, background, and yes, family.
posted by red_lotus at 9:24 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oops, I meant I have more than one biploar in my family.
posted by red_lotus at 9:25 PM on January 30, 2008

I'm guessing that your husband doesn't understand that your sister is not just a rude slacker, her behavior is shaped by an true illness. As red lotus said, your sister still has the responsiblity for giving in to the illness or trying to get better but clearly (according to SSI) the illness is making it much harder for her to hold a job and meet other "normal" expectations. Understanding this doesn't make the behavior less unpleasant but sometimes it make it easier to avoid taking it personally and so it is less upsetting.
posted by metahawk at 11:26 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

She doesn't have a substance abuse problem, just irresponsible and ungrateful.

Well, yes, but this is really the core of the issue. If she were responsible, she wouldn't need this. If she had enough insight into her condition to be grateful, she ... well, she would need this somewhat less. This might help to explain it to your husband - the reasons he dislikes here are exactly the reasons she needs you to do this.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:59 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Making the decision unilaterally was probably not the best move, but what's done is done.

Tell him directly, before he finds out independently. When he asks why you didn't involve him in the decision - be honest. Do not, however, allow yourself to be talked out of it.

Do not expect him to love it, or even like it. If you enter the conversation looking for his approval, it will not go well. All he has to do is accept that this is something you are going to do.

Things will go easier for you if you don't ask for his help on implementation. If he finds himself being asked to do things, go places, or make arrangements with regard to a decision on which he was never consulted, resentment is likely.

For what it's worth, you're doing the right thing by stepping up to care for your sister.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:51 AM on January 31, 2008

1. The US government has determined she's disabled enough to get SSI. They are hard-asses and most who apply are denied, even though 2/3rds of them eventually qualify. Therefore, her being granted SSI is a good indicator that she is actually disabled, and not just "lazy".

2. A judge has determined that she cannot handle her own money. This is probably because people who have bipolar do not always have good judgement. They do things they would not usually do. For example:

If they are manic, they might mean to their loved ones or take advantage of them without thinking. They might spend their gas money on ho-hos and Steel Reserve and then abandon their car at the pump because they can walk home, it's only 6 or 7 miles. This is much harder on them than it is on you, because they have to deal with the bad credit, the lost jobs, the estranged sisters...whereas you only have to deal with one annoying sister.

If they are depressed, they might not be able to get out of bed, or leave the house. They might do a lot of self-destructive things because they don't like themselves or value their health. They might let people down without meaning to because they can't remember things, or don't know what day it is. They might seem lazy because they never do anything but sit around. They might decide that everyone hates them because they are bad people or because they acted badly towards their loved ones.

All of this behavior has been clinically and anecdotally documented time and time again by psychiatrists and psychologists. There are several medications that treat bipolar. It is not something your sister has created to excuse her bad behavior.

3. Your sister's laziness and ungratefulness may have been caused by her illness. She has gone to a doctor and she has tried to get help--if she didn't have a doctor, she wouldn't be able to get SSI. She has put effort into fixing herself and getting healthy. Think of it this way: if she interrupted your wedding with a seizure, would you be angry with her ten years later? Maybe, if you didn't understand epilepsy. If you learned more about it, I think it would be easier to forgive her for smooshing your cake.

4. I imagine she is very isolated. It would be very easy for someone to take advantage of her situation and misappropriate her money. If she complained, would you listen? Would a judge listen, considering her history of mental illness? I doubt it. She is very vulnerable.

Given all of these points, it does not seem like you have much of a choice. I hope your husband can accept this. If not, reading more about bipolar may help. Family counseling (just one or two sessions) may help. However, married couples don't have to agree on everything. They can still support each other and accept each others' decisions. Good luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 7:20 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

Representative payee situations can become outrageously tension filled and can lead to abuses on both ends; I've seen situations where the family member in control of the funds was hounded and even assaulted by the family member they represent, and I've seen payees withold funds or even squander funds meant for a family member. I don't want this to sound insensitive, but considering your sister has limited mobility and probably doesn't have a history of assaultive behavior, there may be some chance that the agency providing her case management services will be willing to take payeeship if it doesn't work out for you. The last agency I worked for went through the ringer with payee issues; basically the entire building was a volatile and sometimes explosive place every first of the month. We handled a very severely mentally ill and addicted population with lots of assault histories. These bad experiences generally make mental health agencies pretty hesitant to step in and take payeeship; it just makes the burden on them too great, especially if they have a lot of clients on SSI.

You should know that there are third party agencies that are willing to take this responsibility on; they understand how strenuous the relationship can be on family members and the mental health agencies trying to provide other needed services to the consumer. For example, Plan of PA is just one such agency in Philly that will step in to handle payeeship. There are others. If the burden of managing your sister's finances becomes too much for you to handle, I would suggest seeking out a similar service in your area and engaging a third party representative. Your sisters case manager should have this information readily available if they're on the ball. You can also inquire with Social Security.

Good luck.
posted by The Straightener at 8:47 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would suggest that you get a third party payee representative and or conservator. It usually takes a lot for the Court to appoint a conservator but that is something you might want to consider as well.

Your husband will not be pleased about the situation but be prepared to give reasons and options so he can handle it better after the initial emotion. The expense of a third party is easily worth the avoidance of resentments and arguments over monetary distribution and allotments.

Not only will you be responsible for her SSI but what about any other financial dealings including taxes and reports? Have you thought of the full financial role you are taking on by being listed as the SSI payee representative? These are some of the questions that your husband may ask and should ask when you inform him and you really need to inform him.
posted by jadepearl at 8:50 AM on January 31, 2008

third party agencies that are willing to take this responsibility

Good idea, Straightener. Maybe anon could give the role a six-month trial period, and then if it's a disaster offer to pay the monthly charge to a (reputable!) third-party agency.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:55 AM on January 31, 2008

Tell him directly, before he finds out independently.

I have no idea what to do about the financial stuff, but I do know about marriages, and I second this in the strongest terms.
posted by languagehat at 9:12 AM on January 31, 2008

I'm going non-anon at this point: this turned out to be incredibly anticlimactic. All the advice here helped me get ready to broach the topic tonight...I got about halfway through the sentence after explaining what the heck a representative payee is and he said, "oh, you're going to have some control over this? Great!"

Apparently all the agencies that do rep payee around here are all booked up, and since she isn't 80 or developmentally disabled, her case is very low priority. But I appreciate ClaudiaCenter's advice in particular, and mentioned it to him; sort of a "if things go really badly" backup.

Anyway -- thanks for all the advice, it really helped!
posted by epersonae at 7:20 PM on January 31, 2008

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