Child-in-Care Spousal Benefits
November 29, 2019 | by Chris Stein, CFP®, Finance Instructor at Colorado State University
Child-in-Care Spousal Benefits

This week we are catching up on interesting unanswered questions from the past: here is one asked in September 2018 about child-in-care spousal benefits.

My wife has been collecting early Social Security benefits since she turned 62 in May 2017. My son (who was only 11 at the time) also started collecting then, thanks to child-in-care spousal benefits. When we went to the Social Security office and were informed that they both could collect, that was a very unexpected surprise for us.

But what Social Security never mentioned – and what I found out in September of 2018 – is that I was also eligible to collect child-in-care spousal benefits without deeming to be collecting my own benefits. (I was 60 when my wife started collecting and am now 61.)  Am I right that I was eligible to collect this benefit back when she began her early retirement? I am going to the local office and file. I am also going to appeal and try to collect as of May 2017 since I feel I was eligible, and no one from Social Security mentioned this to me.  Am I likely to win because no one told me I was also eligible?

Family Maximum

It’s possible for you to win, but it’s likely a moot point because you are probably going to run into ‘family maximum’ issues. Many people don’t realize that there is a maximum that a family can claim on one person’s record. Let’s say that you had 12 kids that were all under the age of 16, and you claimed Social Security (as your wife did). That does unlock the door for dependents’ benefits, but you don’t get a full amount for each one of those kids.

The family maximum calculation will depend on the benefits you’re claiming (whether it’s a Social Security disability claim or a retirement benefit claim), plus some other factors such as claiming early. But the maximum that the whole family can collect will be between 150% and 185% of your full retirement age benefit, no matter how many people are technically eligible.

It’s most likely that – between your wife and your son – you’re at or really close to the family maximum. Even if it turns out that you could claim, if it also means you are exceeding the maximum, they technically will start paying you, but they’ll pay you by shifting money away from your son. Yours are called ‘auxiliary benefits.’ (The main benefit claimant is your wife as she’s the one who filed for the retirement benefit back in May 2017).

But you don’t each get a full benefit. By ‘full,’ I mean half; dependents and spouses are eligible to receive half of the benefit of the claimant, or what Social Security calls the ‘number holder.’ Remember, the limit is 150-185% of your full retirement age benefit (with adjustments), and many people are in that 150% category. Your wife and your son might already be at that 150%, or very close to it.

Child-in-Care Spousal Benefits: Worth Asking!

So, yes, it’s worth asking. If Social Security finds there’s a noticeable increase in your benefit, I would raise the issue of “Why didn’t you tell me about this last year when I was in here with my wife?” However, they are under no obligation to tell you every little bit of information about the available benefits. Unfortunately, to cover themselves, the rules don’t require that they tell you.

Now, if you ask them “What are all the benefits I am eligible for?” they need to answer you. And if they told you wrong – say they said, “No, you’re not eligible,” and you later find out that you are, they will fix those. But it’s going to be up in the air whether they’re going to say, “Well, you’re right, we should have told you.” It’s going to depend on circumstances and the notes that were taken at that time. If there’s a note in your wife’s record, something such as “The husband was in here but didn’t claim,” they might say, “Well, it was brought up last time, and you decided not to,” or “It was explained to you, and there was no real benefit to it, so you didn’t do it.” It will depend on the notes that are in the record.

So, as I said, it’s possible you will win, but it’s also highly likely that you’re not going to get any additional benefit because of the family maximum issue.

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