How the Social Security Administration Defines Family

By Jonathan Peterson

Copyright © 2018 by AARP. All rights reserved.

The word family probably makes you think of the people who are nearest and dearest to you — whether blood relatives or the inner circle of friends you’ve stayed close with for many years. Unfortunately, things aren’t always that simple when it comes to Social Security. Assorted rules and state laws set the terms of who qualifies as a child, parent, spouse, and former spouse.

To define who is your child, and whether you’re the parent, the SSA recognizes that families come in various forms. It has definitions for natural child, adopted child, and stepchild. It may recognize all these categories as eligible for benefits, often without a hitch, as long as you provide basic documentation, such as an acceptable birth record. It also has criteria that may enable a grandchild to get child benefits based on a grandparent’s earnings record.

As a general rule, a child must be unmarried and younger than 18 (or up to 19 if still attending high school full time) to qualify for child benefits.

Spouses as defined by the Social Security Administration

In the past, the SSA recognized only marriages between a man and a woman in determining whether a spouse potentially qualified for benefits. However, in a significant change, it has begun to offer benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages, and the policy has become broader over time. Individuals in such marriages should contact the SSA if they have questions about their eligibility.

Often the worker has been married more than once, and it may not be clear if he or she has obtained a valid divorce before remarrying. In such situations, many states presume the most recent marriage is the valid one, unless this assumption is refuted with clear and convincing evidence.

In states that recognize common-law marriage, you need a formal divorce to dissolve it. There is no such thing as common-law divorce.

Spousal and survivor benefits have duration-of-marriage requirements (marriages are generally expected to last at least one year for spousal benefits and nine months for survivor benefits), as well as restrictions on remarriage.

Parents or grandparents defined by the SSA

You may think it’s simple to define parent or grandparent, but it actually can get pretty complicated. Generally speaking, the SSA considers you a parent if you’re the mother or father as defined by the law in your state that governs inheritance of a parent’s personal property. You may be the parent of a biological child, a legally adopted child, or a stepchild. Similar principles apply in determining whether you’re the grandparent (the parent of the parent) of a child who is eligible for benefits on your record.

The SSA draws the line at grandchildren. Great-grandchildren don’t qualify for benefits on the earnings record of a great-grandparent.

Sometimes, the SSA must decide whether an individual is a parent when he or she isn’t married to the child’s other parent. In such a case, it may consider whether the breadwinner has “acknowledged in writing” that the child is his or hers. It may consider whether a court has decreed parental status. The SSA also may consider evidence that the breadwinner was living with the child or making regular and significant contributions to his or her living costs when the child applied for benefits. (Such evidence also may have to be supplied if the breadwinner has died.)

The SSA wants to make sure that family benefits stay in the family. Dads are supposed to be dads, and moms are supposed to be moms. To help achieve that goal, the SSA has put together a series of internal guidelines, advising SSA employees of red flags to watch out for. If you fall into any of the following categories, your benefit ultimately may be approved, but not before further scrutiny. Here are some of the situations that get special attention:

  • If the parents’ marriage isn’t legal: This situation raises questions about a child’s legal status. (The SSA recognizes a marriage as legitimate if the couple believed they were taking part in a legal ceremony, even if it turns out something was technically wrong with it.)
  • If the child’s mother is entitled to Social Security benefits through the work record of the father, but she hasn’t filed for them: The SSA may want to know why the mother hasn’t filed. Certain explanations, such as the possibility that her claim would reduce a child’s benefit, may be accepted. (The same is true in reverse — that is, if the child’s father is the one entitled to benefits through the work record of the mother.)
  • If the parents weren’t married when the child was born: The child may still qualify for benefits as a child dependent, depending on state inheritance laws or evidence that the child is the biological child, adopted child, or stepchild of the breadwinner.
  • If the father’s name doesn’t appear on a birth certificate or other proof of a child’s age: This situation raises questions about paternity and the child’s legal status as a dependent for Social Security benefits.
  • If the mother was over 50 when the child was born: Although more common in today’s era of assisted reproduction technologies, such births are still rare. The SSA may question whether the woman is actually the mother and whether the child is entitled to benefits. The SSA may seek additional evidence proving maternity, such as a physician’s statement.

Natural children according to the SSA

A natural child is the natural (biological) offspring of a mother or father — a child you gave birth to or fathered. This relationship is the most common one, and in routine cases, such as when the child is born to legally married parents, the child becomes eligible for benefits without difficulty. It’s just a matter of providing a valid birth certificate or other proof of the child’s relationship to the parent who has earned the benefit. The SSA may seek more information when routine evidence isn’t available, such as when the parent’s name isn’t on the birth certificate.

If questions arise about a child-parent relationship, the SSA turns to state inheritance laws. If the state law can be interpreted in more than one way, the SSA is supposed to interpret it in a manner that helps the child.

Adopted children

An adopted child is one who is not a biological child of the parent but was adopted through a legal proceeding, either in the United States or abroad.

A child may be eligible for Social Security child benefits if he or she is legally adopted by a covered worker. The SSA also may recognize a legal adoption by the covered worker’s spouse that took place after the death of the covered worker. In such cases, the SSA follows state or foreign adoption laws (where the adoption took place) rather than state inheritance laws.

A breadwinner may have planned to adopt a child but didn’t complete the adoption, perhaps because of death. In such situations, the SSA may recognize an equitable adoption that wasn’t legally formalized, thereby allowing child benefits. As in other questions of parent-child status, the SSA follows state inheritance law to decide whether a child filing for benefits would qualify as an heir if the deceased worker didn’t leave a will.

Stepchildren according to the SSA

A stepchild is the natural or adopted child of a person’s spouse.

A stepchild may qualify for Social Security benefits based on the earnings record of a stepparent under certain circumstances:

  • After the child’s birth, the child’s natural or adoptive parent married the covered worker.
  • A stepchild is conceived before a valid marriage between a natural parent and a covered worker and born after the marriage. In this case, the stepchild may be eligible for benefits if the marriage lasts for at least one year before the child applies for Social Security benefits.

If the covered worker is no longer alive, the stepchild-parent relationship is expected to have lasted at least nine months before the worker’s death (subject to some exceptions, such as if the worker died in a sudden accident, if the worker died while on active duty in the armed forces, or if the parents had been married before and the new marriage was expected to last at least nine months).

In cases of divorce, a stepchild loses benefits based on a stepparent’s earnings, unless the stepparent adopts the child.

How the SSA defines grandchildren

A grandchild may be natural or adopted. Step-grandchildren also may be included in this category.

Grandchildren may be eligible as dependents of a grandparent in certain situations when the grandparent supports the child. This can come up when the child’s parents become disabled or die, and the child isn’t getting benefits from either parent. Typically, the grandchild must be living with the grandparent for a year before the grandparent claims Social Security benefits, and the grandparent must provide at least half of the child’s financial support.

The SSA also may consider a grandchild eligible for benefits if the grandparent adopts the child. If the grandparent dies, the grandchild may be eligible if he or she is legally adopted by the grandparent’s surviving spouse.

Parents of a worker

If a worker dies, his or her older parents may qualify for benefits as survivors. The parents must have depended on their adult child for at least half of their financial support and prove this to the SSA.