Sometimes I am just blown away by the reaction I get to a column. I write what I think is the most innocuous and non-controversial answer to someone's question about Social Security benefits — and then, out of the blue, my email inbox is flooded with letters. Some of them have an inquisitive "this can't possibly be true" tone, while others are downright angry.
The most recent example of this phenomenon occurred following a column I wrote a few weeks ago in which I answered a question from a retiree about the benefits due to his wife and children. Many readers were shocked, and some irritated, to learn that a retiree's children and his younger wife could qualify for monthly Social Security checks on his account.
Here's a typical response: "You must be wrong about benefits due a retiree's children. Surely those kinds of benefits are only paid if the children are disabled." Here is another: "I've always heard that children get benefits if a parent has died, but I can't believe that they get checks if their father has retired." And finally, one of the typical angry responses: "Why should a 55 year old woman get Social Security checks on her husband's record? She should be working and supporting herself. And their kids don't need money! These people really know how to milk the system. It's just another benefit the liberals have tacked on to Social Security to appease the masses!"
It may surprise many of my readers to learn this "tacking on" was done in 1939 — just three years after the Social Security Act was signed and one year before the first monthly Social Security benefits were paid. In other words, Social Security has been paying benefits to the children of retirees, and to the mothers (and rarely fathers) of those kids, for more than 70 years now.
Many of you wondered why they would get such benefits. The original intent of Social Security was to partially replace the income that taxpayers and their legal dependents lose when they (the taxpayers) stop working — because of retirement, disability, or death. The law clearly spells out who those dependents are. It's a spouse over age 62 who doesn't have his or her own Social Security benefit; it's a widow(er) over age 60; it's a child under age 18 (or over 18 if disabled); and it's the mother (and more recently the father) of any minor kids still at home — unless that mother or father is working, in which case the earnings penalty rules (explained many times in this column) would prevent them from getting benefits.
And for those of you who are convinced that this is just another example of the erosion of that good old "pull yourselves up by the bootstraps" American mentality, I think you should relax. These benefits are not very common. After all, there aren't that many retirees (i.e., folks in their mid to late 60s and older) who have minor children at home.
For biological reasons, there obviously are hardly any women who have young kids at home when they reach Social Security age. It's a different story with men, of course, especially considering that there are more than a few old goats married (usually for the second time) to a younger woman — and they might have some teeny boppers still at home when he signs up for Social Security.
But the numbers show it really doesn't happen all that often. There are about 54 million people getting Social Security checks. Out of all those, about 579,000, or about one percent of all benefits, are going to children of retirees.
It is more likely that the children of someone getting Social Security disability checks would be getting monthly dependent's benefits. There are 1.8 million kids getting checks on the account of a disabled parent. And there are about 2 million kids getting monthly Social Security checks because their mother or father has died.
Finally, there are about 100,000 young mothers getting Social Security from their retired husband's account. That's just one-tenth of one percent of all benefits paid. And you can literally almost count on your fingers and toes the number of dependent fathers getting benefits because they are caring for the young children of a retired woman.
Q. I am 68 years old. I have a 47-year-old wife, and we have a son with Down syndrome who is about to turn 18. He is getting Social Security checks on my record. We've heard conflicting stories about whether his benefits will continue after age 18. Can you explain the rules? (My wife doesn't get any benefits because she is working full time.)
A. Your son's benefits will continue indefinitely. Benefits to a dependent child normally stop at age 18, and sometime can be paid until age 19 if the child is still in high school.
But those benefits can go on for life if a son or daughter is severely disabled, and has been disabled since childhood. In fact, of the 4.3 million "children" who are getting Social Security dependent's benefits, about 950,000 are getting what the law calls "disabled adult child" payments. "Adult" is the key word, because many of these beneficiaries are folks well into their 30s, 40s, and 50s. (Remember though, they have been severely disabled since they were kids.)
If you filed for your retirement benefits quite a few years ago, my hunch is they didn't do any disability development for your son, since he was eligible for checks simply because he was a minor child. That means you will have to fill out some paperwork to establish his disability in Social Security's records. If you haven't done so already, make sure you talk to your local Social Security office about this before his 18th birthday.