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Benefits for grandchildren are rare
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One of the joys of growing older is the opportunity to play grandma or grandpa. My wife and I have five grandchildren, and each of them brings a smile to our faces and a nice warm glow to our hearts — at least a good percentage of the time! And for most of us, one of the big advantages to grand-parenting is that you get to play with them and bounce them on your knees and otherwise spoil them for a few hours at a time, and then they go home!

But for more and more retirees and soon-to-be retirees, those grandkids don't go home. In fact, they are "home" already because they live with grandma and grandpa. For a variety of reasons, the kids' parents are unable to care for them, so the responsibility for raising the little tykes falls to granny and/or gramps.

And if grandma and grandpa are getting Social Security checks, they want to know if the grandkids would be eligible for dependent's benefits on their record. Unfortunately, the answer is frequently "no."

In my entire 32-year career with the Social Security Administration, I maybe took three or four claims for grandchild's benefits. Because such payments are rare, I was never all that familiar with the eligibility rules regarding them. So I did a bit of research before writing this column — and I must admit that I found the sections of SSA's program regulations guidebook a bit confusing on this topic. Or rather, some parts of the law seemed pretty straightforward, but other parts had me scratching my head. So here goes my interpretation of the law.

The first rule is pretty clear cut. And it's the rule that prevents most kids from getting Social Security checks from grandma or grandpa. That rule says that the child's natural parents (both of them) have to be disabled or deceased before the children would be eligible for Social Security benefits from the grandparents.

And those rules get even a little more restrictive depending on when the kids started living with grandma and/or grandpa. (This is one of the parts of the rulebook that had me scratching my head!) As I interpret the law, If the kids were living with you before you started getting Social Security checks, then they could get benefits on your record as soon as you file yourself — but again, only if the child's parents are disabled or dead.

But if the parents are deceased or disabled and those kids move in with you after you start getting Social Security checks, they would not qualify for grandchildren's benefits on your account until after you die. In other words, they would be due survivor benefits on your record but not any benefits while you are still alive.

As I said, it is this "parents must be deceased or disabled" rule that prevents most grandchildren from collecting Social Security benefits from the grandparents. That's because in most cases, grandma and grandpa are caring for the kids only because the parents can't or won't. One or both parents might be drug abusers. One or both parents might be in jail. The real mom or dad just might be a bad parent. As mentioned above, for a variety of reasons, the kids end up living with their grandparents. And in all those kinds of situations, no Social Security benefits can be paid to the kids because mom and dad are not disabled or dead.

There is one big exception to his rule, however. And that is if the grandparents have formally adopted their grandkids. Adoption changes everything. If you have adopted one or more of your children's children, then those kids are no longer legally your grandkids. They are YOUR kids. They are adopted children. But they are YOUR children. And as such, they would be eligible for Social Security benefits on your record just like any child is eligible for benefits on a retiree's account.

So if you are caring for a grandchild whom you have adopted, that child will qualify for an amount equal to 50 percent of your full age 66 benefit. And if you die, that child will get an amount equal to 75 percent of your full age 66 benefit. And in either case, the child would continue to receive monthly checks on your account until he or she reaches age 18.

I have received emails from some support groups who help grandparents through the legal maze of adoption. So if you are caring for your grandkids, and if your family situation is such that adoption might be a viable option, you can probably do a bit of online research to find some help.

Finally, as I pointed out earlier in this column, I found Social Security's rulebook to be a bit confusing on the topic of benefits for grandchildren. So if you are caring for your grandkids, I encourage you to talk to someone at your local Social Security office about your situation. And as I always remind my readers, you have every right in the world to file a claim for benefits. By doing so, you will get a legal decision from Social Security, as opposed to the possibly incorrect opinion of an SSA representative or of a sometimes befuddled columnist.