How Kids Can Collect Social Security
Have you ever bought a lottery ticket and then forgotten to check if you’ve won?
Believe it or not, about $2 billion in lottery prizes go unclaimed every year. Many of those winning tickets are worth a meager $1 to $5, but some people have a life-changing prize in their possession and they’re completely unaware.1
What we’ll cover:
- People don’t fully understand Social Security
- It’s not just retirees who can get Social Security
- Weighing the benefits of taking Social Security early
First, Many Americans Don’t Have A Basic Understanding Of How Social Security Works
Social Security can seem pretty straightforward: You reach at least age 62 and start collecting income from the government, based on what you’ve contributed. In reality, it’s much more complicated. Studies show that most Americans know very little about how Social Security benefits really work. In a recent online survey, nearly half of adults (47%) ages 50 and older couldn’t pass a simple true-false Social Security quiz.2 This can lead to an underutilization of Social Security benefits that would be especially helpful in scenarios that allow for it, such as when you’re raising children later in life. In that instance, when you file for Social Security, your family may be eligible for additional benefits based on your earnings history.
ARE RAISING THEIR
Grandchildren whose gradparents are legal guardians may be eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on a grandparents’ earnings record.
Second, It’s Not Just Retirees Who Can Get Social Security
Your child(ren) may get benefits based on your earnings history—or your spouse’s—when one of you starts taking your Social Security retirement benefits.3 A child may get up to half of a parent’s full benefit.
Furthermore, the proportion of children living in “grandfamilies” has doubled in the U.S. since 1970, and has
increased 7% in the past five years alone. Some 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren.* If you have legal custody and financial responsibility for a grandchild, this benefit may provide much needed help.
To Get Benefits, Your Child Must Be Unmarried And Be:4
- Younger than age 18; or
- 18-19 years old and a full-time student (no higher than grade 12); or
- 18 or older and disabled before age 22
- Under certain circumstances, benefits can also be paid to a stepchild, adopted child or a dependent grandchild or step-grandchild.5
You might be thinking, “Wait a second, what sixty-something has kids who are 18 or younger?” Well, actor Richard Gere just fathered a child at 69 years old—but his child likely won’t be concerned about collecting his father’s Social Security benefits. Today, family structures vary more than ever. And sometimes, the “restructuring” of amilies can make children eligible for benefits based on their parent’s earnings history, even when the parent is still living.
Grandchildren’s Ages Will Affect How Long They Can Collect Grandparents’ Benefits
If Jim, a grandfather, begins taking Social Security benefits at the age of 67 in the amount of $1,500, his
six-year-old granddaughter Maddie (of whom Jim has legal custody) can receive up to 50% of his benefit
until the age of 18. That means she may receive $750/ mo. for 12 years, totaling $108,000 in benefits.
Jim’s 14-year-old grandson Matt, on the other hand, could only receive $750/mo. for four years, totaling only $36,000. (Note there is a family benefits maximum discussed below.)
The age of the children at the time a parent or grandparent begins collecting Social Security is important. If the eligible children or grandchildren are very young, there are more years during which their Social Security benefits could be collected. For example, a six-year-old could feasibly receive benefits through the age of 19. For children who are closer to age 18, the window of opportunity is much smaller.
Children Of Retirement-Age Parents Can Receive Benefits
Suppose Joe, a 60-year-old man, married Tricia, a 44-year-old woman with a seven-year-old daughter, Kayla—and Joe adopted Kayla.
When Joe turns 66 and begins taking $1,000/mo. in Social Security income, at 13 years old, Kayla can receive $500/mo. until the age of 18, totaling $30,000.
The Guidelines Are Different For Children Affected By A Disability Before Age 22
If your child is disabled before age 22, he or she can start collecting benefits whenever a parent files for Social Security, even though that may be decades later. (We’re talking specifically here about Social Security retirement benefits; your child may also be eligible for supplemental income through other government programs at an earlier age.)
Children With Disabilities May Collect Benefits Into Adulthood
Suppose a child, Eric, was affected by a permanent disability at the age of 12, when his father, Bill, was 40 years old. If Bill starts collecting his Social Security retirement benefits twenty-two years later at 62, Eric, then age 34, can immediately start collecting benefits based on his father’s earning history. This is because Eric was affected by the disability prior to age 22. This additional benefit hopefully doesn’t apply to many people, but it can make a significant difference when it does.
Third, Weighing The Benefits Of Collecting Early To Get The Child Benefits
Keep in mind, your child is not eligible for any amounts until a parent starts collecting their retirement benefits. Once they do, that may increase the total amount your family receives from Social Security, and the amounts paid can help cover many typical expenses of raising a child or living with a disability. The tradeoff is that you may have to start collecting sooner than you otherwise would, so you would need to make this decision carefully to ensure it’s the right choice for you.
Children With Disabilities May Collect Benefits Into Adulthood
A 62-year-old grandmother, Lydia, is raising her adopted two-year-old grandchild, Carrie. Although Lydia’s full retirement age is 67, Lydia may decide to start collecting her Social Security benefits early, at age 62, reducing her payment from $1,320/mo. to $930/mo., totaling $11,160/yr.
Even though Lydia’s benefits are reduced, Carrie’s benefit would not be reduced. Instead it would be
based on Lydia’s full retirement age benefit of $1,320/ mo., making Carrie’s benefit $660/mo.
Taking benefits prior to Lydia’s full retirement age might alleviate some financial strain for Lydia. But if
she could wait five more years, until her full retirement age of 67, Lydia’s benefits would increase from $11,160/yr. to $15,840/yr.
Some Things To Consider:
- As you know, starting benefits prior to full retirement
age permanently reduces your benefit and subjects you
to an earnings limit, if you’re still working. You’d also
forgo any potential increases you’d otherwise earn you’d
waited until 70 to collect.
- If a child receiving Social Security benefits on your
earnings history is working, their Social Security income
would be reduced if they earned more than $17,640
in 2019 (the same limit as a parent prior to their full
- What family members receive in benefits does not
reduce your retirement benefit, though there is a family
maximum of what can be received. Typically that’s from
150 to 180 percent of your full retirement benefit.
- If you pass away after starting to collect, the survivor
rules for children are somewhat different. You can read
more about survivors benefits in the Social Security
Administration’s Survivors Benefits handbook here:
ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10084.pdf (on pages 2-5,
- For a minor child, the benefit check is typically paid to a
parent for the benefit of the child. Of course, there are
rules about how the money is spent and accounted for.
For more information, see pages 1-5 in the SSA’s Guide
for Representative Payees here: ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-
Are These Circumstances Too Rare To Worry About?
These situations aren’t terribly common. But if you qualify for these benefits, the added income may be very
meaningful. By just knowing these benefits exist, you can find out if you might qualify.
What To Remember About These Special Situations
First, you may not know the finer details of Social Security. There are lots of unique situations where you may be able
to collect but you’d never know about them. Second, some kids can actually receive Social Security benefits. Third, if a
you want to begin taking Social Security early for the child benefit, you should know that your own benefits could be
higher if they wait.
Don’t Miss Out On These Social Security Benefits
Like a person with an unclaimed lottery ticket, most people in these unique situations aren’t aware of the additional
benefits you could receive. After all, it’s unusual to think of kids receiving Social Security checks. There are also other
unique circumstances that may make you or your family eligible for more benefits. You can learn more about those
in the Social Security Administration’s Retirement Benefits handbook: ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10035.pdf (pages 6-13,
- Consider if you and your kids, or grandkids, could be eligible for Social Security benefits.
- If you think you may be eligible based on some of the criteria we’ve shared, call or visit your local
Social Security office to find out for sure.
- The 114 missing lottery millionaires, money.cnn.com, 1/12/16
- Social Security Fact Sheet, ssa.gov, 2/11/18
- Half of Americans fail this quiz on Social Security retirement benefits, cnbc.com, 5/15/18
- Retirement Benefits, Publication No. 05-10035, ssa.gov, 1/2018
- Information For Kids And Families, ssa.gov, retrieved 1/28/19
* The Age of Grandparents Is Made of Many Tragedies, theatlantic.com, 6/1/18
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