State Court Does Not Control Social Security Payments

MAY 12, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 17

At Fleming & Curti, PLC, we do not handle divorce cases. From time to time, though, a divorce case raises the same kinds of issues that we see in the guardianship, conservatorship and probate cases we do handle.

A recent Arizona Court of Appeals decision is a case in point. It involves the divorce of a Navajo County, Arizona, couple, Donna and Edward. When the couple divorced in 2009, Donna was awarded custody of their four children. Edward was ordered to pay child support.

When Edward began collecting Social Security benefits on his own account, the children were entitled to receive $362 each per month. Social Security named Edward as “representative payee,” which meant that the children’s checks were made payable to him and he was required to account to the Social Security Administration each year.

Donna filed a petition with the divorce court to modify the support and visitation orders. She also alleged that Edward had been taking the children’s Social Security money and spending it as he saw fit — and that she should be the representative payee since she had sole custody of the children. At some point she apparently applied to Social Security to become the payee, and the payments were switched to her name. Still, she wanted Edward to account for — and return — the payments received for a nine month period starting right after the divorce.

The judge in the divorce court agreed, and entered a judgment against Edward (and in favor of Donna) for the amount of the payments he found to have been “misappropriated.” The judge also held Edward in contempt for failing or refusing to turn over the Social Security.

Edward appealed, and the Arizona Court of Appeals briefly reviewed the interrelationship of Social Security, state law and state courts. According to the appellate judges, Arizona state courts do not have any jurisdiction to review the management of Social Security payments made to a representative payee. The proper place to challenge Edward’s use (or possible misuse) of those funds was before the Social Security Administration itself. Peace v. Peace, May 8, 2014.

The Arizona appellate court, incidentally, was very candid in its assessment of the legal principles. It noted that some state courts (not in Arizona) have decided that they do have jurisdiction over Social Security representative payees, and others have held that state courts are preempted by federal law from intervening. The Arizona opinion specifically mentions a minority opinion in a 2013 Vermont case, LaMothe v. LeBlanc, which reviewed the holdings in several states — including Alaska, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa and Tennessee.

What is the significance of the recent Arizona holding in probate court? An analogous situation arises frequently. Suppose that a parent with a disability receives Social Security benefits, and that his or her minor child is entitled to Social Security benefits. Now suppose that a grandparent or other family member has become guardian for the child, or that a professional fiduciary has become conservator to handle a personal injury settlement. Can the Arizona probate court order the parent to turn over Social Security payments, or to prove that they were expended for the child’s benefit, or even to relinquish authority as representative payee? The Peace decision would seem to say that none of those decisions are within the purview of the probate court — the guardian’s, conservator’s or custodial parent’s dispute is with Social Security, not the state courts.

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