When a Family Member Stops Getting Social Security, Does My Benefit Increase?

What happens to the money if my wife, child, or stepchild is no longer eligible for dependent benefits?

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

When you're eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits based on your own work record, your dependent family members can qualify for additional benefits (called auxiliary or dependent benefits). The amount each family member can receive depends on the size of your monthly benefit and your family's size.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) treats dependents benefits like a pool of money your family must share. And eligibility for family benefits can change over time based on your dependents' ages, marital status, and other factors.

This article will look at what happens when a family member loses eligibility for SSDI dependent benefits and where that money goes.

How Does Social Security Decide How Much SSDI My Family Can Receive?

Your family's maximum benefit will be 150% of your primary insurance amount (PIA) or 85% of your average indexed monthly earnings, whichever is more. (20 C.F.R. § 404.403(d)(2)(d-1).) And since your monthly SSDI benefit is 100% of your PIA, this leaves 50% of your PIA to be split among your eligible family members.

What Happens to My Social Security Benefits When My Child Turns 18?

Your child will become ineligible for Social Security dependent benefits upon turning 18. If they're still in high school or middle school (but not college), they can continue collecting benefits until they turn 19.

Although your SSDI (disability insurance) benefit won't go up when your child turns 18, your other eligible family members' benefits likely will.

The maximum family benefit amount (usually 50% of your benefit amount) must be shared among your eligible family members. So, if you have four eligible dependents, each would receive one-fourth of the family benefit amount. If one becomes ineligible, the remaining three dependents will split the pot three ways, each getting one-third of the maximum family benefit.

(For more information on the calculations, see our article on Social Security's family maximum benefit.)

Children turning 18 with disabilities might be able to collect adult child benefits on your earnings record or qualify for SSI. (If your child already receives SSI, read our article about age 18 redeterminations.)

What Happens to Social Security Benefits in a Divorce?

Divorce can affect your former spouse's eligibility to receive Social Security benefits based on your work record. And a divorce could affect how much your other eligible family members can receive, in some circumstances.

Your ex-spouse will likely be eligible for dependents benefits if you were married for at least 10 years before the divorce and your ex is at least age 62 or takes care of your child who is under age 16 or disabled. If neither of those conditions apply, your ex-spouse can't collect dependent benefits based on your work record.

If you had any stepchildren (the children of your ex-spouse) when you get divorced, they would become ineligible for benefits due to the divorce unless you've adopted them.

But any of your adopted or biological children who are younger than 16 or disabled would still be eligible, regardless of whether they live with you or your ex-spouse. The family members who are still eligible for dependent benefits would share the entire maximum family benefit.

However, the spousal benefit of an ex-spouse who is collecting benefits at age 62 or older isn't subject to the family maximum. But the benefit of an ex-spouse who is taking care of a disabled worker's child who's under 16 or disabled (called a mother's or father's benefit) is subject to the family maximum. (20 C.F.R. § 404.403(a)(3).)

For more information, see our article on how divorce affects Social Security benefits.

Where Does the Money Go If All My Dependents Become Ineligible?

Dependent benefits are extra benefits Social Security pays to a disabled worker's family members on top of the disabled worker's SSDI benefits.

If you receive SSDI and your children become ineligible due to age or your spouse becomes ineligible due to divorce, the remaining eligible family members will split the family maximum benefit. But if you have no other eligible family members, the family benefit simply stays in Social Security's coffers. And you continue to receive your regular SSDI benefits.

Will My Social Security Benefits Change if a Family Member Loses Access to My Benefits?

It's important to remember that whether or not your dependents (your child, ex-spouse, current spouse, or stepchild) are receiving benefits has no effect on the amount of your benefits. (20 C.F.R. § 404.404.) No matter how many or how few dependents you have, you'll never get more SSDI than you're getting now, except for annual cost-of-living increases. (See the examples above.)

Where to Go for Help With Family Benefits

If you have questions about family benefit eligibility, how much your family could receive, or you expect a change in eligibility for one or more of your dependents, you can speak with a Social Security representative by:

In the meantime, you can learn more about how spousal benefits work in our article on SSDI benefits for spouses and divorced spouses and more about children's benefits in our article on SSDI benefits for children.

Updated April 15, 2024

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