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Understanding Social Security Benefits for Children

The Social Security Administration offers several ways to collect benefits – and children can sometimes qualify for Social Security benefits, depending on their life circumstances.

Unmarried children under 18 years of age or children up to age 19 attending elementary or secondary school full-time, are eligible to receive benefits when a parent retires, becomes disabled or dies. The age limits don’t apply if the child is considered disabled before age 22 and remains disabled.

Of course, the parent needs to be entitled to Social Security in the first place for his or her child to apply for benefits. Each eligible child can receive up to 50 percent of the retiree’s primary insurance amount (PIA) – the parent’s Social Security check before adjustments for retirement age, earnings and other factors.

The spouse can also collect benefits on the retiree’s record at the same time as a child, but a family maximum does apply, says Jake Loescher, financial advisor with Savant Capital Management.

“If the total family benefit exceeds the maximum allowed, the retiree’s benefit is not reduced, but the spouse’s and children’s benefit is reduced pro rata to bring the total under the allowable family maximum,” he says.

If one or both parents are disabled and qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, their children may be able to collect Social Security benefits, too.

If a child is entitled to survivors benefits, he or she can receive up to 75 percent of the deceased parent’s basic Social Security benefit.

“While it may sound like an unlimited amount of funds for a family that has many eligible children, there is a cap on those benefits as a family,” says Loescher. 

Spouses are also beneficiaries under this scenario; when combined with a disabled individual and eligible children receiving benefits, the family may receive no more than 150 percent of the primary individual’s PIA. If the individual has died and his or her surviving spouse and children are receiving benefits, the family maximum increases to 150 to 188 percent of the PIA. There is a formula for calculating the maximum benefits payable to the family.

Stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and adopted children may also receive benefits under certain circumstances, he says. Stepchildren must depend on the stepparent for at least half of their support. Dependent grandchildren are considered eligible to collect if their parents are disabled or dead.

A surviving spouse can also collect benefits if they’re caring for a child under the age of 16. If the child isn’t disabled, the spousal benefits in this situation would cease when the child turns age 16. Disabled children will receive benefits until age 18 – and beyond 18, if the disability occurred before age 22. Parents of permanently disabled children can also qualify for supplemental Social Security income, but many criteria must first be met, says Loescher. 

It can be complicated to know when a child qualifies for Social Security; a seasoned advisor can help walk a client through Social Security’s many twists and turns.

Loescher notes that Social Security benefits for children are often not accounted for when clients think about planning for personal disability or life insurance. Still: The same way retiree Social Security benefits don’t completely replace retirement savings, survivor and disability benefits are not meant to be a stopgap for family insurance planning. Instead, it’s another cash flow tool in the box.

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