• Chris Stein, CFP®

Social Security Child-In-Care Benefits

A reader has made some comments about child-in-care benefits linked to Social Security.

"On two recent podcasts, I've waited to hear you mention Social Security's child-in-care benefit, but you didn't. In the first, the doctor's wife (mother of his minor child), regardless of her age, would be eligible for a child-in-care benefit equal to 50% of his PIA until the minor child turned 18. That would be in addition to the minor child's 50% benefit. In the second, the couple expected to wait to age 70 to claim Social Security. If one of them – ideally the one with the smaller benefit – claimed now, their benefit would be decreased, but they would have been eligible for the child-in-care benefit equal to 50% of the claimant's PIA for their disabled child. The disabled child would also get 50%, which would likely be higher than his own disability benefit. Child-in-care seems to be a little-known but potentially very valuable tool for parents with disabled children (as I am), so I would appreciate a mention of it to help others in the same boat. Like the survivor benefit, claiming the child-in-care benefit does not deem your own retirement; it stands alone."


First of all, I agree that if there was no mention of child-in-care in those two cases, it should have been something for someone to consider. But, for now, there are a couple of comments in your email that I'd like to clarify. Unfortunately, the child-in-care benefit isn't quite as generous as what's been described here.


Let me first describe what child-in-care is. Essentially, think of it as a spousal benefit available to spouses who might otherwise not be eligible to collect it, usually due to an age issue. A special spousal benefit is granted when caring for the child of a "number holder" who has claimed the Social Security retirement benefit. ("Number holder" is the term Social Security uses for the wage-earner with the work record.)


In simpler terms: if someone claims their retirement benefit and has a child under age 16, child-in-care benefits are triggered. The idea is that a spouse's ability to work is limited while caring for a child young enough to need care. So the system offers an extra benefit based on the wage earner's record. But at age 16, the system assumes the child no longer needs as much care and can come home from school alone – so the spouse can work again, and the benefit is ended.


One of the factual errors in your note was age: for child-in-care, the age limit is 16, not 18. The confusion may have come from the age limit for standard child benefits. These are available until age 18 (or 19 if still a full-time high school student) or if they're disabled.


Child-in-care benefits related to a spouse require that someone has claimed Social Security retirement benefits, which will happen at age 62 or above. And it's relatively rare that someone age 62, 65 or 66 will have a child under age 16.


It happens more often when the child is disabled, as you mentioned. Many people are caring for a disabled child who can even be well over age 16. Child-in-care benefits are available for a spouse of any age once someone – usually the primary breadwinner in the family – files for retirement benefits.


Without going into the specifics of the two instances you mentioned, I wanted to clarify the age constraints that have to be followed.


The second point of clarification relates to how attractive the program sounds in your description. First, someone will have filed, so they will be receiving 100% of their retirement benefit – possibly a little less if they claimed before Full Retirement Age or FRA. Then their child, who is either disabled or under the age of 18 (or 19 if still in high school), is receiving the child benefit equal to 50% of the parent's PIA. (PIA, or Primary Insurance Amount, is the calculated benefit amount available to the number holder at FRA.) And, if the child is under age 16 or disabled, the spouse can get that child-in-care benefit, which is also 50% of PIA.


The problem is that you will eventually bump up against the "family maximum payment." There is a limit to how much money Social Security can pay to a family on any single work record. The amount is determined as part of every benefit computation and ranges from 150% to 180% of the parent's PIA.


So, you can't collect an unlimited number of 50% benefits in auxiliary payments (which spousal and child benefits are called). In your description, payments would include 100% to the number holder, 50% to the spouse for child-in-care and 50% in child benefits to the child. That would be 200% -- more than any family maximum.


Suppose the total amount payable exceeds the family maximum (of between 150% and 180%). In that case, the number holder receives the full benefit, and each other person's benefit will be reduced proportionately until the total equals the maximum allowable amount. Depending on how many claimants are on the account, it could reduce benefits somewhat or a lot. Especially if the family maximum is 150%, the child-in-care benefit may not add much.


Here's my purpose in walking through this complexity: if you have a minor child or a disabled child in the family, this must be considered when making your final Social Security claiming decisions. With auxiliary benefits, sometimes turning yours on isn't just about you. It opens the door to others' auxiliary benefits, which can swing the pendulum of how attractive an earlier claiming date can be. So it's well worth looking into.


There's a lot of confusion regarding Social Security, and child-in-care benefits are probably one of the least known factors. So once you get anywhere near claiming age – say close to age 60 – you should start investigating what exactly is available to you and your family, given your circumstances. You don't want to miss out on dollars that you could otherwise have claimed.


With Social Security, you pretty much get one shot at claiming. It isn't easy to re-do or fix something you realize you should have done differently. And it's almost impossible to go back in time if you missed an opportunity.


No matter what your circumstances, you'll want to make sure you're approaching Social Security in the most optimal way for your whole family.

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