Retirees With ‘Disabled Adult Children’

The typical advice of retiring later for higher benefits doesn’t apply for seniors with a disabled adult son or daughter.
Retirees With ‘Disabled Adult Children’
Very often, these disabled adult children will be getting Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits before their parents file for Social Security.(Lopolo/Shutterstock)
Tom Margenau

This is going to be a column about DACs. And what’s that? It’s the abbreviation the Social Security Administration uses to refer to “disabled adult children.” Here is some background.

Since almost the beginning of the Social Security program in the 1930s, minor children have qualified for benefits on a retiree’s record. A child gets an amount equal to one half of the retiree’s full retirement age benefit rate, subject to rules that limit how much a family with children can get in total monthly benefits. (Those rules are too messy to explain in today’s column.)

Benefits to kids usually stop once the child turns 18. But those benefits can continue indefinitely if the child is disabled. Let me clarify that a little more: More often than not, once retirees reach Social Security age, they no longer have minor children at home. But they possibly could have a disabled “adult child” still at home or living on their own or in some kind of facility that cares for disabled adults. And the law says if that “child” was disabled before the age of 22, he or she will get DAC benefits. And just like a minor child, that DAC will get an amount equal to 50 percent of the retiree’s FRA benefit rate. (When the retiree dies, that bumps up to a 75 percent rate.)

That all sounds relatively simple. But now, let me throw in a little twist. Very often, these disabled adult children will be getting Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits before mom or dad files for Social Security. SSI is a federal welfare program that pays a small monthly stipend (currently about $940—although it can be less) to old folks or disabled people who are poor. While a disabled child is young and living at home, the income and assets of the parents are counted in the SSI calculation, and that usually keeps the child from getting SSI.

But once the child turns 18, the parents’ resources no longer count. So lots of these “disabled adult children” get SSI benefits until one or both parents file for Social Security—at which point the child is switched from SSI to Social Security DAC benefits.

And that switch must be made. Why? Because SSI is a welfare program, and welfare rules state that if a person is on SSI, he or she must file for any other benefits they might be due.

One other point. SSI benefits almost always come with full Medicaid coverage. (Medicaid is kind of like the welfare version of Medicare.) Although the rules can vary from state to state, they generally say that if someone loses their SSI because they start getting DAC benefits, the Medicaid coverage can continue.

To help clarify things even more, here are answers to questions from folks who have a disabled adult child.

Q: I am 64 and plan on waiting until my full retirement age to file for benefits. I will get $3,700 per month then. My wife is about to turn 62. She'll get $1,400 per month if she files for her own Social Security. We have a 32-year-old developmentally disabled daughter getting $934 in SSI benefits. I don’t think my wife should file for Social Security because our daughter will lose her SSI. My wife wants to file anyway. Who is right?
A: I’m not a financial planner. But I think your wife is right. If she files, your daughter will get an amount equal to one-half of your wife’s full retirement age benefit rate. If her age 62 benefit is $1,400, her FRA rate must be about $2,000. And half of that, or $1,000, would be your daughter’s DAC benefit. And that is more than your daughter’s current $934 SSI check. So your wife and daughter are financially ahead to file for Social Security. (And again, your daughter will likely keep her Medicaid coverage.)

Oh—and when you file for your own benefits down the road, your daughter will be switched to 50 percent of your much higher monthly benefit.

And just coincidentally, I had another email from a couple with almost the same circumstances as those just discussed, with one difference. In this case, the wife’s FRA benefit rate was only $1,600, meaning their disabled daughter would be due $800 in DAC benefits. And they didn’t want the wife to file for Social Security because the DAC rate of $800 is less than the $934 check the daughter currently gets.

But I explained to them that even though the daughter would get $800 in DAC benefits, only $780 of that counts against her SSI check. (Don’t ask me why!) In other words, the daughter would get $800 in Social Security DAC benefits and $154 in SSI benefits ($934 minus $780 equals $154). So the daughter would end up with $954 in total monthly benefits—compared with the $934 she gets now.

Q: I am about to turn 62. I am thinking of retiring and taking my Social Security. However, everyone I know tells me I'd be foolish to do that. They all tell me to wait at least until age 67, when I can get full benefits. And others suggest I wait even longer—until age 70. What do you think? And FYI: My wife and I have a 22-year-old son who has been mentally disabled since birth. My wife is 60 and stays home to care for our son.
A: When I read the first couple of lines of your email, I was ready to give you my stock response when people ask me if they should retire early and take reduced Social Security benefits or wait until a later date to get higher benefits. That response essentially tells people to decide if they want more money at the front end of their senior years—by taking reduced retirement benefits—or more money in their later years—by waiting until 67 or 70 to start their Social Security.

But the fact that you have a disabled son changes everything. And that’s because he, and possibly your wife, will be eligible for benefits as soon as you sign up for your Social Security. In other words, by waiting until a later age to apply for benefits, not only are you forgoing your own monthly checks, but also you'd be throwing away tens of thousands of dollars in benefits due to your family.

As explained above, your son gets a rate equal to 50 percent of your full age 67 rate, even if you take benefits at age 62. And if your wife is not working, she is also potentially due benefits as the dependent caregiver of a disabled child. She, too, would get the 50 percent rate. But as I said earlier, the “family maximum” rules could limit what you all receive each month. You will have to talk to the Social Security people about that.

But the bottom line message to you is this: The combination of benefits due your wife and son make those reduced retirement benefits a pretty attractive option for you to consider.

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If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It's called "Social Security -- Simple and Smart." You can find the book at or look for it on Amazon or other book outlets. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at
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