Social Security Benefits for Children

by Kevin Mercadante

One of the biggest concerns that all parents have is the care of their children in the event of their death. Your death will certainly cause deep emotional issues for your children, but the good news is that you can get financial help from the Social Security Administration in the care of your children as a result of your death.

The benefits will be available on a monthly basis to whoever the appointed caregiver of your children will be, for the purpose of providing for the needs of the children. Given that we normally think in terms of Social Security as being an old age retirement benefit, the fact that it will also pay benefits for your children in the event of your death comes as both a surprise and a bonus to many people.

But the benefit is there, and you should do some investigating to determine eligibility as well as the amount of benefits before there is actually a need. Just knowing that the benefits are there can go a long way toward easing your mind about the care of your children following your death. When combined with the proceeds of a life insurance policy, your children should be well provided for in the unfortunate event of your death.

Social Security survivor benefits for minor children

What are the requirements for children to get Social Security benefits?

To be eligible to receive Social Security benefits, a child must be your natural, adopted or dependent step child.

More specifically, to get benefits a child must have (according to the Social Security Administration):

  • A parent(s) who is disabled or retired and entitled to Social Security benefits; or
  • A parent who died after having worked long enough in a job where he or she paid Social Security taxes.

The child must also be:

  • Unmarried
  • Younger than age 18
  • 18-19 years old and a full-time student but no higher than grade 12
  • 18 or older and disabled, and the disability must have started before age 22 (more on that in a bit)

The paperwork requirements to establish a claim include (but are not limited to):

  • Your child’s birth certificate
  • Your’s and your spouse’s Social Security numbers
  • For survivors benefits, proof of the parents death
  • For disability benefits, medical evidence to prove the disability
  • Other documentation as required by the Administration

The amount of benefits you can expect to receive

Unless you are already receiving Social Security income – upon which your children’s benefits will be based – this part can be complicated, particularly if you’re looking for a projection.

A child’s benefit may be up to half of the parent’s retirement or disability benefit, or as much as 75% of the deceased parent’s basic Social Security benefit.

The maximum benefit per family is limited to between 150% and 180% of the parents full benefit amount. In the event that the monthly benefit should exceed this percentage, the amount of the benefit paid for each child will be reduced proportionally. Naturally this limit will be more of a problem if you have more than two children, as the total benefit cannot exceed the benefit ceiling regardless of the number of children that need to be provided for.

If you are simply looking to do a projection of the benefits your children may be entitled to upon your death, you’ll have to first get an estimate of what your own Social Security benefit will be at retirement. The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides a tool to help you do that on their Retirement Estimator webpage. There are a number of steps you will need to go through in order to get your estimate, but it will give you an approximation of how much you can expect to receive in retirement, and a base from which to estimate the benefits your children will receive in the event of your death.

How long you can expect benefits to continue

Social Security benefits for children stop when a child reaches the age of 18, and the SSA will inform the surviving parent or guardian of the termination of benefits three months before the child turns 18.

There are of course exceptions to termination of benefits at age 18:

If the child is still a student – Benefits will continue as long as the child is a full-time student enrolled in either an elementary or high school. Upon turning 18 the child will have to complete a statement of attendance certified by the school he or she is attending. The benefits will terminate at the earlier of graduation from high school, or attaining the age of 19 and two months.

IMPORTANT: The extension of benefits past age 18 does not apply to a child attending college.

Disability – In the event the child is disabled, benefits will continue past age 18, as long as the disability began before the child turns 22. Presumably the benefit will be converted to a long-term disability claim if the child is permanently disabled, but each situation is determined on a case-by-case basis.

You can also get benefits for the care of a child

You can also get benefits if you are caring for a child who is receiving Social Security benefits. Your benefits will end when the child turns 16, unless the child is disabled. Benefits can extend past the child’s 16th birthday if you “exercise parental control and responsibility for a mentally disabled child or perform personal services for a child who is disabled”.

In the event that the child is disabled, the disability must be confirmed before the child turns 16. SSA will notify you of the termination of benefits just before the child turns 16, and then you must make application for a continuation of benefits based on the child’s disability.

You can get more information about Social Security benefits for your children at
SSA Publication No. 05-10085.

Published or updated October 13, 2015.
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