Many people may not be aware that retirees aren’t the only group who can collect Social Security benefits. Those who have lost a spouse or parent who they depended on for financial support may also be eligible for benefits. Survivor benefits are designed to help families that have lost their breadwinner. Nearly 2 million children received Social Security survivor benefits in 2018, with an average monthly payment of $859. In most cases, this benefit ends when the child marries or turns 18, but there are certain exceptions.
Qualifying for Retirement Benefits
Social Security is often referred to as a social insurance program. For workers who pay into the program through taxes, monthly benefits may be available to replace a portion of income in the event of retirement, disability or even death. The largest group of people who collect Social Security benefits are retirees who have put in at least 10 years earning a salary and paying Social Security taxes. Someone who qualifies for benefits based on their earnings can start collecting a monthly benefit when they reach age 62, though many don’t opt to collect until age 70 or older, which increases their monthly payment.
Spouses may be able to collect based on their retired spouse’s earnings. Couples need to be married for at least a year before this spousal benefit can be claimed. If all the requirements are met, a spouse can collect as much as 50 percent of what their retired spouse received. Minor children of retirees may also be eligible for a benefit based on their parent’s benefit.
Survivor Benefits for a Child
Social Security provides a survivor benefit for spouses of deceased people as well as their children in some cases. The Social Security Administration refers to this benefit as survivor's insurance; workers pay for it with their Social Security taxes. The child survivor benefit is available regardless of whether the parent was the father or mother.
To qualify for monthly Social Security benefits, a child must be unmarried and under age 18. Those between 18 and 19 still qualify if they are full-time students at an elementary or secondary school. Surviving children who are disabled and unable to work may be eligible for benefits over age 18. The onset of their disability must be before age 22.
In addition to biological children, a deceased worker’s grandchildren, stepchildren and adopted children may also qualify for a survivor benefit. For grandchildren to qualify, their biological parents usually must be disabled or deceased. Grandchildren also must have been living with their deceased grandparent before age 18 to receive survivor benefits following the grandparent’s death. The Social Security Administration should be contacted with specific questions about child eligibility.
Some parents pass away relatively early in life, before completing at least 10 years of work for Social Security benefits. In this case, only one-and-a-half years of work in the three years before death are required for the family to collect survivor benefits. Thanks to this requirement, the majority of working adults between age 20 and 49 qualify for survivor benefits for their family in the event of their passing.
Child Benefit Amount
The amount a child receives as a survivor depends upon how much their parent paid into Social Security during their lifetime. In general, a longer working career means more was paid in, resulting in higher monthly benefits for survivors. According to the Social Security Administration, a child could receive 75 percent of a deceased parent’s basic Social Security benefit.
A child’s benefit could be reduced due to the maximum benefit allowed per family. This maximum varies per family but typically ranges between 150 and 180 percent of the basic benefit for the deceased spouse or parent. If the sum of the benefits paid to individual family members exceeds the maximum percentage, Social Security will reduce each family member’s benefit proportionately.
Applying for Child Survivor Benefits
The Social Security Administration expects to be notified by family members or a funeral director when someone who has a Social Security number passes away. Once this has been done, family members can contact Social Security to find out about possible survivor benefits. The person who is the guardian of a surviving child should contact Social Security after the death of the parent.
The Social Security Administration has automated many of its services on its website, but reporting a death and applying for benefits as a survivor cannot be done online. Instead, a visit to a local Social Security office is recommended, or a phone call to the national toll-free call center. This could be a relatively simple transaction if the child were already collecting some kind of Social Security benefits. Since this is not usually the case, the person who applies for benefits on behalf of the child will be asked to provide their name and Social Security number along with the name, SSN and birth certificate or proof of adoption for the child, along with the name and SSN of the deceased worker and proof of their death. Verification of the child’s relationship with the deceased worker and the child’s unmarried status may also be required.
To apply for benefits for a disabled adult child, an official disability report must be filed along with authorization for the Social Security Administration to review confidential medical information. “Disability” is defined by the Social Security Act as a condition that leaves you unable to do work for which you are suited. The disability must be a chronic condition lasting for at least a year or ending in death. Disabled children and adults who don’t have survivor benefits may qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program based on financial need rather than work history.
Social Security Lump-Sum Death Payment
A surviving child may qualify for the Social Security one-time survivor payment of $255, also known as the Lump Sum Death Payment (LSDP). A child is eligible for this payment only if no surviving spouse qualifies. The child must have already been receiving survivor benefits from the deceased parent or be eligible for future benefits. This lump-sum payment can be applied for up to two years after the parent’s death. If multiple children in a family qualify for the payment, it must be split between them.
The LSDP is a historic benefit dating back to the 1930s when it was the only benefit offered to the spouses of workers who died before their full retirement age. At one time it offered a significant benefit to survivors, but it was capped at $255 more than 80 years ago, and inflation has significantly decreased its value. At the same time, monthly benefits to survivors have increased and made this benefit less important. There have been proposals in recent years to eliminate this payment due to administrative costs of about $10 million annually.
Survivor Benefit for Parent
A little-known benefit related to deceased workers is the case of someone who is dependent on their child. A parent, age 62 or older, whose working child provided at least 50 percent of their income may be eligible to receive survivor benefits. The surviving parent can’t be receiving retirement benefits that would be greater than the survivor benefits. Also, the parent must remain unmarried to continue collecting benefits.
Catie Watson spent three decades in the corporate world before becoming a freelance writer. She has an English degree from UC Berkeley and specializes in topics related to personal finance, careers and business.