Social Security may be best known for the monthly benefits it provides to retirees, but, in some cases, it also offers benefits to their dependents. Potential recipients include spouses, along with dependent parents, children, and grandchildren. Depending on their relationship to the retiree, dependents may receive payments of between 50% and 100% of the qualified retiree's benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • The spouses and other dependents of covered workers may be eligible for Social Security benefits, both while the worker is alive and after their death.
  • Ex-spouses of retired workers may be entitled to a benefit equaling half the amount the retiree is receiving, provided the marriage lasted at least 10 years.
  • Social Security imposes a maximum family benefit that can reduce benefits to some dependents if the family as a whole has exceeded that limit.

Who Qualifies as a Social Security Dependent?

For Social Security purposes, eligible dependents can include:

  • Spouses
  • Ex-spouses
  • Dependent children or grandchildren
  • Dependent parents

Dependents may be eligible to receive benefits if an eligible Social Security recipient retires, becomes disabled, or dies. Here is how the program works, based on the type of dependent.

Benefits for the Spouses of Retirees

The spouse of a retiree who is already drawing Social Security is eligible to receive a spousal benefit. The payment equals up to one-half of the retired spouse's monthly payment, also known as their primary insurance amount (PIA). In order to receive this benefit, the spouse receiving the spousal benefit must be at least 62 years old or be caring for a child who is younger than 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits.

You must have reached what Social Security calls your normal or "full" retirement age in order to receive the entire one-half of your retired spouse's PIA. That age is 66 years and two months for people born in 1955 and rises by two months per year of birth until it reaches 67 for those born in 1960 or later. If you opt to receive benefits before that time, you will be penalized according to a formula similar to that used to compute the reduced benefits of workers who retire early.  

At the time you are eligible for the spousal benefit, you may be eligible to receive more from Social Security based on your own earnings record than you would receive through that of your spouse. If this is the case, the Social Security Administration automatically provides you with the greater benefit.

If you are still working, your spousal benefits may be reduced, based on your income. The threshold is fairly low; for 2021, it's $18,960 in annual income or $1,580 per month. If you earn more than that amount, your benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over the limit. During the year you reach your full retirement age, your benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $3 you earn over $50,520, up until the month you achieve full retirement age. After that, these penalties no longer apply.

So, for example, if you're 64 and made $25,000 in other income, your Social Security benefits for the year would be reduced by $3,020.

Married couples should coordinate how and when they each begin to collect benefits. You can run these numbers yourself to see how it works by using a Social Security calculator.

Benefits for Surviving Spouses

Survivor benefits are available to widows or widowers, based on their late spouse’s earnings record. To receive these benefits, the surviving spouse must be at least 60 years old, or 50 if disabled. (The disability must have begun before or within seven years of the worker's death.)

A younger widow or widower can also be eligible for survivor benefits if they are caring for a child of the deceased worker who is under the age of 16 or disabled and receiving dependent benefits based upon their late parent’s earnings record.

Survivors who have reached their normal retirement age can receive 100% of their deceased spouse’s benefit. For survivors who are at least 60, the benefit ranges from 71.5% to 99.6% of their deceased spouse’s benefit.

The survivor has some additional options. For example, a 60-year-old spouse could apply for survivor benefits now and then switch to a retirement benefit based on their own work history at age 62 (or later), if that would result in a higher monthly payment.

Social Security will also provide a one-time lump-sum payment of $255 upon the death of a spouse, provided the spouses were living in the same residence at the time of the spouse's death.

Benefits for Divorced Spouses

If you are divorced from a retired worker, you're eligible to receive an amount equal to one-half of your former spouse's PIA, provided you were married for at least 10 years.

The rules are similar to those for spousal benefits described above, with a notable exception: You can begin receiving benefits even before your former spouse has begun to do so. However, you have to be at least 62 years old, and the divorce must have been finalized for at least two years if you have not yet reached your normal retirement age.

Divorced spouses who had more than one marriage that lasted at least 10 years do not receive multiple benefit checks or one for each marriage. But the Social Security Administration does automatically choose the former marriage that will yield the largest benefit to the ex-spouse.

Benefits for Children and Grandchildren

Children can qualify for a benefit as the survivor of a deceased worker or as the dependent of a living parent who receives Social Security retirement or disability benefits. Children need to be one of the following:

  • Unmarried
  • Under the age of 18 (or 19 if they are a full-time student in elementary or secondary school)
  • 18 or older and disabled from a disability that started before age 22 

Benefits paid to a child will not decrease a living parent’s retirement benefit. The value of the benefits the child could receive, added to the parent’s benefits, may help the parent decide if taking their own benefits sooner may be more advantageous.

A dependent child can receive up to half of the benefit of a parent who is receiving retirement or disability benefits. If the parent is deceased, dependent children can receive up to 75% of the worker’s benefit, calculated as a percentage of the benefit that the worker would have received had they continued working until retirement. If you are taking care of a child and receiving benefits, then their benefits may stop at a different time than your own.

If grandchildren become dependents of their grandparents due to the death of their own parents or for other reasons, they can be eligible to receive benefits based upon the earnings record of either of their grandparents. Great-grandchildren do not qualify for dependent benefits, however.

Benefits for Disabled Children

Children with disabilities can be eligible for Social Security benefits, but the requirements and application process can be arduous. Social Security says that the child must have a physical or mental condition that severely limits their activity and is expected to last more than one year or result in the child’s death.

The family must also have few, if any, other financial options for providing care. Social Security considers the family’s household income, additional resources, and other factors in making that determination.

If the child and their family qualify, the child may receive up to half of the parent’s full retirement or disability benefit. A disabled child could receive a benefit of 75% of the worker’s benefit if the worker has died. A child who is 18 or older is also eligible if they suffer from a disability that began no later than age 22.

For families that are in this situation, it's worth noting that there are other government programs, such as Medicaid, that have provisions to assist children and adults with disabilities.

Benefits for Dependent Parents

Some parents legally depend on a child due to economic circumstances or disability. The dependent parents of a deceased worker who are 62 or older can receive 82.5% of the worker’s benefit for one parent or 75% each for two parents.

Family Benefit Maximum

Benefits to dependents are subject to a maximum monthly retirement and survivor payout from Social Security to the family as a whole. This total figure is based on the worker’s own monthly payment. The total payout to the family varies, but dependent benefits typically range between 150% to 180% of the worker’s payment.

Benefits to former spouses are not counted in your family maximum benefit, so they do not affect that maximum.

The Social Security Administration uses a complex formula to calculate the family benefit maximum. The families of disabled workers are subject to a different formula, one that typically sets the maximum at between 100% and 150% of the worker's payment.