While retired workers make up the bulk of Social Security beneficiaries, the Social Security Administration (SSA) provides important benefits to many other groups, including children. More than 4 million children in the United States receive Social Security benefits every year. In fact, the SSA pays more benefits to children than any other government program.
The benefits, which are based on their parents’ earnings record, are available to children with a parent who died, retired or became disabled. The goal is to help stabilize a family’s economic situation after the loss of an income. In addition, children with a disability and limited resources can receive benefits, called Supplemental Security Income, which are not tied to a parent’s earnings.
Benefits for children began in 1939 to address the fact that the original “old-age benefits plan” of 1935 didn’t provide for spouses and dependents of qualified workers.
Which children are eligible to receive benefits?
For the most part, there are a few basic requirements for children to receive Social Security benefits. They must be unmarried and younger than age 18, unless:
- They are disabled and the disability started before age 22
- They are a full-time student in grade 12 or lower and are 19 years old or younger
If the child is not disabled, he or she must also fall into one of these categories:
- A child of a parent who is disabled and who paid into Social Security. (For a parent to be determined disabled, he or she must not be able to work enough to earn a certain monthly amount (which depends on the disability) because of a physical or mental impairment that is expected to last for at least a year or be fatal.)
- A child of a parent who is receiving Social Security retirement benefits. This doesn’t happen very often because of the limited number of people who are age 62 and older and who also have a child who is younger than 18. But if this does apply to you, you should consider whether it makes sense to file for your Social Security benefits early, so that your child can collect benefits, too, or if it makes more sense to wait until your full retirement age or beyond so that your benefits increase. Keep in mind that once your child turns 18 (or 19 if they are disabled and still in high school), they won’t be eligible to collect on your Social Security benefits. If a child is collecting on your benefits, it doesn’t change the size of your own benefit.
- A child of a parent who died after paying into Social Security. The SSA estimates that 98% of children could receive benefits if an employed parent dies. Both a deceased worker’s surviving spouse and child are eligible for benefits if the spouse is caring for the worker’s child who is younger than age 16.
- A stepchild who receives at least half of their support from a stepparent who becomes disabled, retires or dies. If the stepchild’s parent and stepparent divorce, the benefits based on the stepparent’s earnings end.
- A grandchild and stepgrandchild, in some cases. The child must be financially dependent on a grandparent when the grandparent retires, becomes disabled or dies. For the child to qualify, he or she must have lived with the grandparent and received at least half of his or her financial support from the grandparents for the year prior to the retirement eligibility, disability or death. The child’s parents generally must be dead or disabled. In any case, they cannot be making regular contributions to support the child.
Benefit amounts for children
The size of the benefits a child receives depends on the status of the worker whose benefits their payment is based on or if the child is receiving benefits through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. SSI is meant for children and adults who are disabled and have limited income and resources. Here’s how Social Security benefits are calculated for children in various circumstances:
- Parent who is disabled: A child can generally receive up to 50% of the parent’s total benefit. The average monthly benefit for a child in this situation is $382.
- Parent who is retired: A child can generally receive up to 50% of the parent’s total benefit. Even if you filed for benefits before your full retirement age, your child would get up to half of your full-retirement-age benefit. The average monthly benefit is $699.
- Parent who died: A child can get up to 75% of the parent’s total benefit. The average monthly benefit is $886.
- Child who is disabled and has limited resources: The amount of the payment through the SSI program differs from state to state because some states contribute additional money toward the payment, but the average SSI amount is $674. Arizona, Mississippi, North Dakota and West Virginia don’t supplement SSI.
If the child works
A child who earns money while receiving Social Security benefits because of a parent who is retired, disabled or deceased, is subject to earnings limits, but a minimum-wage part-time job for a teen would be unlikely to trigger a reduction in benefits. The SSA provides a calculator to help anyone determine if a child’s earnings could lower their monthly benefits and by how much. Note that your child’s earnings from a job will only affect their benefits, not yours.
The rules for SSI are different: A child who is disabled is able to earn more money without losing benefits. Most of a child’s earnings aren’t counted in the SSI payment. In fact, Social Security encourages children with disabilities to work through two programs: Work Incentives Planning and Assistance program and the Protection and Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security program.
There is a limit to how much one family can collect in Social Security benefits based on one worker’s earnings record. The calculations can be complicated, but a family of a retired or deceased worker can generally get a total of about 150% to 180% of the one worker’s full retirement benefit. The family of a disabled worker can get 100% to 150% of the worker’s full retirement benefit. A divorced spouse’s benefits are not counted as part of the family maximum. If the family’s benefits go over the maximum, the benefits to the spouse and children would be reduced equally until the family is under the limit.
Supplemental Security Income
SSI is a Social Security benefit for children who are disabled and whose families have little income and resources. The SSI program is not funded through Social Security taxes, but from general taxes. To be considered disabled under the Social Security Administration’s definition, the child must meet two qualifications:
- Have a physical or mental condition that very seriously limits the child’s activities
- Have the condition, or be expected to have it, for at least a year or have a condition that is expected to result in death
The benefits can begin at birth. Unlike other Social Security benefits for children, the benefits can last until the child is age 22, if he or she is still in school.
For a one-parent household with one child who is not disabled and one who is, a parent must earn less than $3,595 a month and have no more than a few thousand dollars in the bank to receive SSI for the child who is disabled.
How to file for benefits for children
You can apply for benefits for a child whose parent is disabled, retired or deceased by calling the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or going to a Social Security office in person. You don’t need an appointment, but it’s a good idea so you don’t have to wait. You can’t apply for benefits for children online.
The documents you likely will need to apply, include:
- The child’s original birth certificate (not a photocopy)
- If the child is the stepchild of the worker, proof of the worker’s marriage to the child’s parent
- Proof of the child’s U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if the child was not born in the United States
- W-2 forms if the child earned money last year
- If the worker is deceased, proof of the worker’s death and (if applicable) U.S. military discharge papers
If you can’t access any of the documents, the Social Security Administration will work with you to help you get them.
Applying for SSI for a child is more involved. Take a look at the Child Disability Starter Kit before you apply to prepare. Once you’re ready, follow these steps:
- Fill out a Child Disability Report online. This report asks for detailed information about the child’s medical conditions, doctors, medical tests, medications, education and work history. It also will ask for permission for the child’s doctors to give information about the child’s disability to the Social Security Administration.
- Next, you must call the SSA at 800-772-1213 or visit an SSA office to fill out an Application for SSI.
- The SSA will forward all the information to your state’s Disability Determination Services office, where it will be reviewed by doctors and other experts. It can take three to five months for a decision, though for certain conditions the process can be much quicker. If more testing of your child is needed to make a determination, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will let you know and pay for the exam. Your child’s disability may be reviewed periodically to see if he or she still qualifies.
How should the money be used?
A parent of a child receiving Social Security benefits used to have to file an annual report with the SSA, explaining how the money was spent. This is no longer the case, but parents still must keep records of how the funds were used in case the administration ever asks to see them. The money should be used for the child’s:
- Food and shelter
- Medical and dental care
- Personal needs, like clothes and activities
A parent is allowed to put the money in a checking account under their name, but children’s savings must be in separate accounts for each child, under the child’s name. A parent must notify the SSA of changes in the child’s life such as custody changes, marriage or moves to a new address.
As you plan for the day when you’re no longer receiving an income, remember to include any minor children in your calculations. Social Security can be a significant help in ensuring your children have financial support until they reach adulthood.