Social Security isn't just for retirees. The government program has more than 62 million people on its rolls, and people of all ages can qualify for Social Security benefits under certain circumstances.

Yet when you look closely at Social Security, you won't find too many children who are getting benefits. Among the program's current recipients, only about 4.2 million are children, or about 7% of all people receiving payments. The reason has to do with the way Social Security laws define which children are entitled to benefits. For the vast majority of people claiming Social Security on their own work record, their children won't meet the qualifications to make claims to receive children's benefits.

Five children with Hula Hoops running in a grass field on a sunny day.

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How children's Social Security benefits work

For children to receive Social Security benefits on a parent's work record, there are several requirements. First, the parent must currently receive Social Security benefits, either from the retirement side of the program or from the disability side. The child must also be unmarried. Most importantly, only children under age 18 are typically eligible for benefits.

There are a couple of exceptions to the age rule, but they're fairly limited. If children are still in high school, then they can keep getting benefits until graduation, as long as they're no older than 19 years old. Alternatively, children who are disabled have no age limit associated with children's Social Security benefits, as long as the disability occurred before their 22nd birthday.

Why you don't find many children getting benefits

The combination of the requirement that a parent get benefits and the age-related restrictions explains why it's relatively uncommon to see children receiving Social Security benefits. It's unusual for those who are old enough to receive retirement benefits to have a child young enough to receive Social Security, and that's why fewer than 700,000 children receive benefits as a result of their parents claiming retirement benefits.

What's more common is that children become entitled to benefits because of a family tragedy. Almost 1.6 million children receive family disability benefits because one of their parents became disabled. More than 1.9 million children are eligible to receive survivor benefits after the death of one of their parents. Because Social Security provides these benefits even when the parent in question is well shy of retirement age, the odds of children being young enough to be eligible in these situations are much higher.

What children get from Social Security

Children's benefits are equal to 50% of the parent's full retirement or disability benefit if the parent is still living, and survivor benefits are up to 75% of the deceased parent's benefit. Yet the dollar amounts that children get are often relatively small. On the disability side, the average benefit for children of disabled workers is just $369 a month, reflecting not only the lower benefit that disabled workers themselves typically get but also the impact of the family maximum on families with multiple children. Meanwhile, surviving children get an average of $861 per month, while kids of retired workers receive $678 on average every month.

The other thing to remember about children's benefits is that except in cases of disability, they end when the child reaches adulthood. So if a child is 17 when a parent retires, dies, or becomes disabled, then benefits might last for only a single year.

Planning for children's benefits

Because of the usually temporary nature of children's benefits, it's important for parents to take them into account when considering their own strategy for claiming Social Security. For instance, in some cases, the additional children's benefit can more than make up for the reduction in benefits that a parent would suffer by claiming Social Security earlier rather than later.

Not many children receive money from Social Security, but for those who do, it often comes as a consequence of a hardship in their families. Knowing when you qualify is vital in order to get the financial support the entire family needs.

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