Find out when your spouse and children can receive dependent benefits while you get Social Security Disability and learn how the law defines dependency for stepchildren and non-adopted grandchildren to receive dependent benefits.

Dependent Benefits

If you are approved for Social Security Disability on your own earnings record, your spouse and children also may be eligible to receive dependent benefits on your earnings records. Whether or not your dependents are eligible depends on their relationship to you; in some cases, on when the relationship began; and on your lifetime earnings record, which is used to calculate your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) and your Family Maximum Benefit (FMB).

The Family Maximum Benefit

The Family Maximum Benefit is the amount payable to your family including the benefit paid to you, which is called your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). The FMB formula for families of disabled workers is different from the formula for families of retired or deceased workers. For individuals becoming entitled to Social Security Disability benefits in 1980 or later, the FMB ranges from being equal to the disabled worker’s benefit, meaning that no benefits are payable to the worker’s family, to 150% of the disabled workers benefit, meaning benefits for entitled dependents except surviving divorced spouses will altogether equal 50% of the worker’s PIA.

The amount of the PIA and, thus, the amount of the FMB, is derived from the disabled worker’s lifetime earnings. If an individual’s past earnings are quite low, the FMB will be equal to PIA paid the disabled worker and no dependent benefits will be payable. To the degree that past earnings high enough for the FMB to be more than the PIA, dependent benefits are payable ranging in amount from a few dollars to up to an amount equal to 50% of the worker’s PIA per dependent.

Examples of Family Maximum Benefits

Let’s look at this in more detail. The higher the disabled worker’s earnings history, which is converted to Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME) to determine the PIA, the higher percentage of the PIA used to calculate the Family Maximum Benefit. If you have a low Social Security benefit, such as $300, your Family Maximum Benefit may be $300, all of which will be paid to you with none left to pay to your dependents. If your benefit is in the range of $500, give or take, your dependents will be eligible for a small benefit under the FMB because the FMB will be only slighter more than your own benefit. If you have a higher benefit, such as $1,800, then your FMB would be $2,700, 150% of your own benefit. Of that amount, $1,800 would be paid to you and $900 would be available to split among your eligible dependents.

Note that divorced spouses who are entitled on an earnings record are paid outside the FMB and their benefits do not reduce the benefits of those being paid within the family maximum. For more information about divorced spouses, see “When Your Former Spouse Is Eligible for Benefits” later in this article.

Your Family Maximum Benefit

You can find out the amount of your Family Maximum Benefit and PIA by going to and set up a My Social Security account. Once the account is set up, you can request an earnings statement (not a benefit statement). The earnings statement provides a history of your work earnings. If you have worked enough to be insured for Social Security Disability benefits, the statement will include an estimate of your PIA (your benefit) and of your FMB. The difference between the two is the amount potentially payable to your dependents. (Note that your current year’s and sometimes your prior year’s earnings will not be listed, so even if the state says you are not insured for disability, you might be.) If you have any difficulty in obtaining the earnings statement and estimates, visit your closest Social Security office for assistance.

Who is a “child”?

Now that you know a little bit about benefit amounts that could be paid to your family, here’s some information about how Social Security law defines eligible dependents and dependency when it is required.

First, your children may be eligible. Social Security defines a “child” as your natural child, adopted child, dependent stepchild, and in some cases dependent grandchild. Your child must be under age eighteen, age nineteen and a full-time student in a high school or elementary school, or a disabled adult child over age eighteen who became disabled before age twenty-two. Your child must also be unmarried with some exceptions for disabled adult children.

Stepchildren can meet the status of stepchild if they were born before the parent’s marriage to the disabled worker or conceived before and born after. They can receive dependents benefits one year after the marriage that gave them stepchild status if they met the financial dependency requirement throughout the year before one of the following points in time: the date the insured worker became disabled, the date the insured worker became entitled to disability benefits, or the date an application was filed for the stepchild. Dependency is receiving at least one-half support from the disabled stepparent. Rules regarding what is considered contributions for support are detailed and extensive, but as a general rule, the contribution has to provide for basic needs versus contributions for special activities and the like.

For a dependent, non-adopted grandchild to be eligible for dependent benefits on a grandparent’s earnings record, the grandchild’s parents must either be deceased or disabled in the month that the grandparent becomes entitled to Social Security Disability (SSDI) or Social Security Retirement benefits or in the month when the grandparent’s period of disability began. Dependency requirements similar to those for stepchildren must be met for the non-adopted grandchild to qualify.

When Children’s Benefits Are Payable

Children’s benefits are paid for minor children. The benefits end the month before the month that the child turns eighteen unless the child is still a full-time student in high school or elementary school in which case benefits will continue to the later of the month before the child turns twenty or the month before the child ceases to be a full-time student. Benefits are not paid for children age eighteen or older who are in post-secondary education or job training.

Children’s benefits can continue or can start if a child becomes disabled prior to age twenty-two. Application for Childhood Disability Benefits (CDB) payable for a disabled adult child can be filed three months before the child turns age eighteen if the child is disabled and unmarried at that time and the parent is entitled to Social Security Disability or Retirement benefits or is deceased.

When Your Spouse Is Eligible for Benefits

Your potentially eligible dependents also include your spouse age sixty-two or older or your spouse under age sixty-two who is caring for your child who is under age sixteen. For benefits to be payable, the spouse cannot have more countable work earnings than his or her maximum annual benefits. In 2018, a spouse can earn $17,040 gross wages or net profit from self-employment annually without affecting benefits. Annual earnings reduce annual benefits by one dollar for every two dollars over the allowable earnings limit.

If your spouse is not earning above the limit, it may be to your spouse’s advantage to apply for benefits even if benefits are being paid to children and total family benefits will not increase with your spouse’s entitlement. The reason is that entitlement on your earnings record could protect your spouse’s potential eligibility for disabled surviving spouse's benefits should you die before her.

When Your Former Spouse Is Eligible for Benefits

If you are divorced, your divorced spouse age sixty-two or older may also qualify for benefits if you were married to the divorced spouse for ten years or more and the divorced spouse is not married and is not entitled to a higher benefit on his or her own earnings record. Your divorced spouse’s benefit will be paid outside the Family Maximum Benefit; that is, the divorced spouse’s benefit will not affect the amount paid to you or your other dependents.

Different from all other dependent benefits, divorced spouse's benefits can also be paid without the living wage earner being entitled to Social Security Disability or Retirement benefits as long as:

  1. The divorce occurred two years or more before the application for divorced spouse's benefits is filed; and
  2. The wage earner is insured and at least age sixty-two years old throughout the year that the divorced spouse files for benefits.

This allows the divorced spouse to receive retirement benefits even if the wage earner defers retirement to age seventy.

What Happens When Dependent Benefits End

Benefits paid to your dependents do not reduce your own benefit, so when the dependents are no longer eligible, for example, when the youngest child turns eighteen, the amount of your own benefit will not change.