Family Eligibility for Social Security

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Imagine a giant tree, its roots firmly anchored in the ground to provide support and its branches reaching out. The Social Security system functions similarly. While many assume Social Security is only available for retirees, its reach extends further.

Every worker who contributes to Social Security is like the tree’s roots. They provide necessary support to their family. However, Social Security benefits can also flow from the roots to the tree’s limbs – with benefits flowing from the working adult to eligible family members.

We’ll explain how family eligibility works in Social Security from the many benefits available. Not all branches are eligible for Social Security benefits. However, understanding which ones can help you get the full benefits you’re entitled to.

Let’s start by exploring the roots of this system – the working adult who provides the foundation for all of this support.

The Working Adult

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While paying taxes may seem like a pain, it does make you eligible for Social Security benefits later.

All trees thrive on their root systems. Without them, a tree wouldn’t make it very far! Social Security’s tree draws from a working adult’s contributions. Every paycheck, the majority of Americans pay Social Security taxes. These act as the foundation for the entire system, potentially making their family members eligible for benefits.

By consistently paying into the system, the working adult secures through own future through retirement benefits. However, it also lays the groundwork for potential benefits to flow to their eligible family members.

Most jobs in the United States automatically withhold Social Security taxes. You don’t need to opt into this, so as long as you receive a paycheck, you’re likely paying into Social Security. We have a comprehensive explainer on how Social Security works, if you want more information on taxes.

In many cases, working and paying taxes are the only things you need to do to help your family members become eligible. You can learn more about these benefits on our Social Security hub page.

Family Members Who May Be Eligible

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Social Security helps support your family should you become disabled or pass away.

Just like a tree’s roots support the branches, Social Security benefits also support the worker’s family – not just the worker themselves. Let’s explore who may be eligible for these benefits, starting with the closest branch – spouses.


Spouses generally have the easiest time qualifying for additional Social Security benefits. They benefit most from two key benefits: retirement benefits and survivor benefits.

A spouse may be eligible for spousal retirement benefits based on age and marital duration. Generally, a spouse can claim retirement benefits as early as 62, just like workers. However, the amount of their monthly check will be lowered if they claim before full retirement age. The amount of money a spouse gets also depends on the working adult’s retirement benefit. Generally, spouses can only receive up to 50% of a working adult’s benefit when they reach full retirement age.

If the working adult dies, their spouse may claim survivor benefits. These benefits are designed to support spouses who are financially dependent on the deceased worker. Eligibility and the amount the spouse receives depends on their age and marriage length.


Dependent children of a working adult may also be eligible for Social Security, based largely on their age and dependency status.

An unmarried, dependent child under 18 can often receive benefits based on a working adult’s Social Security eligibility. Sometimes, those between 18 and 19 also qualify if they are full-time students. The key factor is dependency. The child must be dependent on the deceased adult to qualify.

If the child received most of their financial support from the other parent, they likely wouldn’t qualify.

Disabled Adult Children

In some cases, adult children may be eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on their adult parent’s taxes. Eligibility is based on two many factors: disability status and dependency on the working adult.

Adult children must have a qualifying disability and be able to prove that disability before they reach the age of 22. The Social Security Administration has a very specific definition of disability. The individual must be disabled enough to be unable to engage in any gainful activity.

The adult child must also be dependent on the deceased working adult. They should have received at least half of their support from the time their disability began (or at a later point if the child is older but has been disabled for a long period). This dependency requirement ensures that the benefits are directed only toward children who were actually dependent on the working adult.

Types of Social Security Benefits

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Retirement benefits are the most common benefits potentially available to spouses.

Having explored the working adult and possible dependents. Let’s look at the specific types of benefits that may apply to dependents. We have a more comprehensive explanation of all the benefits of Social Security, too.

Retirement Benefits

Retirement benefits are the benefits that most people think of when they think of Social Security. These benefits provide a steady income stream for working adults after they retire. This amount is based on the working adult’s average earnings. The more money you put into taxes, the more you often receive when you retire (though it also depends on your age and other factors).

Sometimes, dependents (like spouses) can also collect some retirement income. Sometimes, even divorced spouses are eligible. However, these are not subtracted from the working adult’s benefits.

Survivor Benefits

It can be very unpredictable. It isn’t uncommon for working adults to pass away before receiving any of their Social Security benefits. In this case, their spouse and children may receive some benefits as “survivors.” The amount depends on the survivor’s age and the dependent’s status. The closer they are to the adult, often the more they receive.

Dependent grandchildren may also be eligible. The important factor is that they are dependent.

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