How Having a “Child in Care” May Affect Your Social Security Benefits

By Jonathan Peterson

Copyright © 2018 by AARP. All rights reserved.

If you’re a parent who may be eligible for Social Security benefits, a key factor in whether you qualify may be whether you have a child in your care. Having a “child in care” also could determine the amount you receive. Two key areas where this comes up are the following:

  • Spousal benefits: You typically become eligible for spousal benefits, which are based on a breadwinner’s earnings record, at age 62 (if the breadwinner has claimed benefits). But if you have the breadwinner’s child in your care, you potentially qualify for spousal benefits at any age. These benefits pay up to 50 percent of the worker’s full retirement benefit.
  • Survivor benefits: These benefits pay a surviving spouse (age 60 and up) as much as 100 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit amount, if you claim them at full retirement age. If you’re caring for the deceased worker’s child, you may qualify at any age (although benefits are capped at 75 percent if you’re under 60).

An important and little-known exception to child-in-care guidelines applies to divorced spouses. If you’re in that category, the SSA will not provide you divorced-spouse benefits (based on the earnings record of your ex) before you turn 62, even if you have your ex-spouse’s child in your care.

The SSA has guidelines to determine whether you’re exercising “parental responsibility” for a child in care in certain circumstances, such as when you don’t live with your child. Here’s the SSA in its own words on what the child-in-care requirements mean:

  • “Exercising parental control and responsibility for the welfare and care of a child under 16 or a mentally disabled child 16 or older.”
  • “Performing personal services for a physically disabled child age 16 or over.” Such services may include nursing care, feeding, dressing, and other special assistance.

A child may be considered in your care during a month if he or she spends at least one day of that month with you. In addition, a child may be in your care under certain other circumstances, even when you and the child aren’t living together.

The SSA may recognize a child in your care if you have a shared custody arrangement. The child may still be considered in your care if you continue to exercise control and responsibility when the child is with the other parent. If a child is living with the other parent for a month or longer, however, and that parent is exercising parental control and you aren’t, then you may not have a child in care.

In deciding whether you exercise “parental control,” the SSA considers whether you display a strong interest in properly raising the child, supervise the child’s activities, and participate in key decisions about the child’s physical needs and mental development. You can do this directly or indirectly.

You may have a child in care when the child is living away at school, as long as you continue to exercise parental control and participate in major decisions. If a child lives in an institution year-round, the child may still be considered in your care if you maintain contact with the institution and participate in decisions.