The term Social Security is frequently assumed to refer to the payouts for retirees and senior citizens. Yet there is another important facet to Social Security benefits, which provides important assistance to the most vulnerable members of our society: the payments that go to children. According to the Social Security Administration, there were approximately 4.2 million children who received $2.6 billion in aid each month in 2017.

When a parent dies, retires, or becomes disabled, children may qualify for these Social Security benefits, which are intended to help provide for them through high school. The law also protects unmarried, dependent children who were being cared for by their deceased, disabled, or elderly grandparents.

Here's the lowdown on who qualifies to receive such benefits and how to arrange for it.

Which Kids Qualify?

Biological or adopted children or stepchildren can be eligible for Social Security benefits. To receive them, the child must meet the following criteria:

  • Has a parent(s) who is disabled or retired and eligible for Social Security benefits
  • Is unmarried
  • Is younger than 18 years old or up to age 19 if he or she is a full-time high school student
  • Is 18 years or older and disabled (as long as the disability began before the individual turned age 22)

How to Receive Benefits

You must apply in person. First, the family must present the child's birth certificate, the parents' Social Security numbers, and the child's Social Security number. There may be additional documents required, as well. Depending upon the circumstances, the applicant must provide a parent's death certificate and/or evidence of disability from a doctor.

If your child is disabled, the Social Security Administration has a fact sheet and starter packet to help you navigate the process of receiving benefits. This information will guide you along the path to sign up for and obtain benefits and includes a frequently asked questions section as well.

If you are taking care of a child and are receiving benefits, then his or her benefits may stop at a different time than your own. For example, if the child is not disabled, then the caretaker's benefits will terminate when the child turns 16 years old. If the child is disabled and you have responsibility for and control of the child, then your benefits may continue. For these types of specific circumstances, it’s best to contact the Social Security Administration.

How Much Do You Get?

The child may receive up to half of the parent’s full retirement or disability benefit. If the parent is deceased, then the child is eligible to receive up to 75% of the parent’s basic Social Security benefit. There is a limit to the total amount that a family is eligible to receive from Social Security, though. The family maximum payment, paid to all family members, ranges from 150% to 180% of the parent's full benefit amount. If the amount due to the entire family surpasses the maximum, then each individual payment is proportionately reduced.

As an example, let's look at an elderly parent—named June—with a dependent child. June's full retirement amount is $1,500, and her family maximum is $2,300. June would receive her full $1,500 per month, and her husband, John, and their dependent child, Ruth, would split the remaining $800 payment; each would receive $400.

The Bottom Line

The Social Security benefit for children is an important government tool to help keep families—especially the youngest of the bunch—solvent during times of death and disability. Be sure to check in with the Social Security Administration in evaluating your own case.