Two Social Security cards lying on fanned currency.

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Most people think of Social Security as primarily offering benefits to workers in retirement. Yet what many are surprised to learn is that children can receive Social Security benefits under certain circumstances. In particular, benefits for children are available as dependent benefits under the regular Social Security program, or as SSI disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program for children with disabilities.

Below, we'll go through the various situations that make Social Security benefits for children available and what you have to do to get the payments you deserve.

Children's benefits under regular Social Security

Qualifying children are generally able to receive children's benefits under Social Security if their parents receive either retirement benefits or disability benefits. In order to qualify, the child must be unmarried, and generally must be under age 18. There are two exceptions to the age requirement, with high-school students allowed to keep receiving benefits even if they are 18 or 19 years old, and disabled children have no age limit if their disability occurred before they turned 22. Adopted children and stepchildren are eligible, as are dependent grandchildren under some circumstances.

Children under Social Security get benefits equal to as much as half of the full amount the parent receives. However, there is a family maximum of roughly 150% to 180% of the parent's benefit amount, and that applies to the total of what the worker, spouse, and all children receive. If a benefit would exceed the total limit, then the child's benefit often gets reduced proportionately.

Survivor benefits under regular Social Security

The Social Security benefits above apply when a child's parent is eligible for and receives retirement or disability benefits on the parent's own work record. In addition, children can receive survivor benefits after their parent's death if they qualify. The primary qualification for requirement is based on age, and the same limitations described above apply in the survivor benefits context as well.

The amount children receive as survivor benefits is larger than what the same child would get while the parent is still living. Typically, survivor benefits are 75% of the deceased parent's full benefit amount. However, similar family maximum provisions can apply to reduce what a child gets in survivor benefits.

Children's benefits under Supplemental Security Income

The Social Security Administration also runs the Supplemental Security Income program, also known as SSI, which provides benefits to disabled adults and children who have limited income and financial resources. In order to qualify, the child must meet the SSA's definition of disability for children. That requires the child to have a physical or mental condition that very seriously limits the child's activities, and the condition must have lasted or be expected to last at least one year or be a terminal condition.

To determine eligibility for SSI, you also have to meet the financial resources test. The child must have no more than $2,000 in financial resources, and the child has to include most of the resources of parents in meeting the limit. However, several assets don't count as financial resources, including the home where the child lives, one vehicle used for transportation, and various household goods and personal effects.

The monthly maximum payment amount under SSI for 2016 is $733, but that figure is subject to reduction depending on income. In the case of children, the program initially looks at the income the child's parents have, but it doesn't include every source of income. For instance, the first $65 of earned income each month, plus one-half of the excess, is excluded from countable income for purposes of reducing the SSI payment. In addition, food stamps, welfare payments, income tax refunds, and several other similar types of assistance aren't counted.

Social Security benefits for children don't make up a huge percentage of those served by the program overall. For the children who rely on those benefits, though, what Social Security provides can make a huge different in their lives.