Benefits for Grandchildren—Don’t Count on It!

August 19, 2020 Updated: September 1, 2020

One of the joys of growing older is the opportunity to play Grandma or Grandpa. My wife and I have five grandchildren, and each of them brings a smile to our faces and a nice warm glow to our hearts—at least a good percentage of the time!

One of the big advantages to grandparenting is that you get to play with them and bounce them on your knees and otherwise spoil them for a few hours at a time, and then they go home!

But for more and more retirees and soon-to-be retirees, those grandkids don’t go home. In fact, they are “home” already, because they live with Grandma and Grandpa. For a variety of reasons, the kids’ parents are unable to care for them, so the responsibility for raising the little tykes falls to the grandparents.

And if Grandma and Grandpa are getting Social Security checks, they want to know if the grandkids would be eligible for dependents benefits on their record. Unfortunately, the answer is frequently no.

That’s primarily because the law says the child’s natural parents (both of them) have to be disabled or deceased before the children would be eligible for Social Security benefits from the grandparents.

In most cases (at least the ones that readers have sent me emails about), Grandma and Grandpa are caring for the kids only because the parents can’t or won’t. One or both parents might be drug abusers. One or both parents might be in jail. The real mom or dad just might be bad parents. And in all those kinds of situations, no Social Security benefits can be paid to the kids from a grandparent’s account, because Mom and Dad aren’t disabled or dead.

There is one big exception to this rule, however. And that is if the grandparents have formally adopted their grandkids. Adoption changes everything. If you have adopted one or more of your children’s children, then those kids are no longer legally your grandkids. They are your kids. And as such, they would be eligible for Social Security benefits on your record, just like any child is eligible for benefits on a retiree’s account.

So, if you are caring for a grandchild who you have adopted, that child will qualify for an amount equal to 50 percent of your full retirement age benefit. And if you die, that child will get an amount equal to 75 percent of your full benefit. And in either case, the child would continue to receive monthly checks on your account until he or she reaches age 18.

Here are some different kinds of questions from seniors about their grandkids. They aren’t looking for benefits on their retirement accounts. They are just seeking information for grandkids who have some problems—usually medical problems.

Q: We have a 16-year-old granddaughter who was in a bad car accident and now has a very severe disability—a brain injury. Her mother (our daughter) quit work to take care of her. Her father has a good job—but he worries he might be laid off soon. They are struggling to make ends meet. Can they get any kind of Social Security help for our granddaughter?

A: The only kind of help your granddaughter can get from Social Security would be from the Social Security account of one of her parents. But that can’t happen unless one of the parents is getting Social Security or if one of the parents is deceased. So, that means there would be no Social Security benefits for now.

However, there is another program called Supplemental Security Income. It’s managed by the Social Security Administration, but isn’t a Social Security benefit and is not paid for out of Social Security taxes. SSI is a welfare program that pays a small monthly check to poor people who are over 65 or to poor people of any age who are disabled—including kids.

Because it is a welfare program, the income and assets of the parents are taken into account when deciding if your grandchild qualifies for benefits. The rules are too complicated to explain in this column. If she does qualify for SSI, she would get a small monthly check (around $800)—but she also would get valuable Medicaid coverage. The only way to find out if she is eligible for SSI would be to have the parents call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 and go over their situation.

Q: We have a grandson who is 25 years old. He has been disabled since birth. His parents, our son and daughter-in-law, have been taking care of him. And until recently, they have been doing well financially. They own their own restaurant. But the COVID-19 virus has hit their business quite hard, so now they are struggling. They are too proud to seek any kind of help for their son. But we want to know what, if anything, might be available to him through Social Security.

A: As explained in the answer to the first question, there would be no benefits from Social Security because the parents aren’t getting Social Security themselves.

But there is a pretty good chance your grandson will get SSI. In the prior answer, I explained that when deciding if a child is eligible for SSI, the income and assets of the parents must be taken into account. But once the child is over age 18, as is your grandson, the story changes. At 18, your grandson is considered an independent adult. And assuming he doesn’t have any income or resources of his own, then he should be able to get a monthly SSI check. Because the parents are supporting your grandchild, it might not be the full $800 allotment I mentioned in the prior answer. But it will be something—maybe in the range of $500 per month. And no matter how much he gets in monthly SSI payments, your grandson will get Medicaid coverage, which is often more valuable than the SSI payment. So, your son or daughter-in-law should call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 and get the ball rolling.

Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers. If you have a Social Security question, contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net.