Although Social Security benefits are primarily intended for retirees who pay into the system during their working lives, a beneficiary's family can also receive support under certain conditions. The Social Security Administration, however, strictly defines the categories of family members who can receive family or survivor benefits, including widows, widowers or dependent children and excluding other family categories such as siblings and cousins.
A sister is not able to draw Social Security benefits from the contributions of a deceased brother. Spouses and children, on the other hand, are eligible for family benefits.
Family Benefits: Eligibility and Amounts
The families of living Social Security beneficiaries are entitled to receive family support benefits in some cases. More specifically, the following categories of individuals are entitled to receive Social Security benefits as dependents of the primary beneficiary:
- Spouses over the age of 60 (50 if disabled)
- Spouses of any age who provide care for a child under the age of 16 or a disabled child receiving her own benefits
- Children under the age of 18 (or 19 if the child is a full time student in elementary or secondary school)
- Disabled children over 18 if the disability began before age 22
- Former spouses to whom the beneficiary was married for at least 10 years
Although exact benefit amounts depend on the ages and situations of each of the beneficiaries, benefits for spouses and children can be as much as half of the main beneficiary's monthly benefit amount.
Survivor Benefits: Eligibility and Amounts
In the case of a deceased Social Security recipient, surviving family members may be able to continue to collect benefits based on the deceased beneficiary's rate if they meet certain conditions.
Widows and widowers are able to collect the deceased beneficiary's full benefit rate if they are themselves of retirement age, although they are also able to collect from 71.5 to 99 percent of the benefit from age 60 until retirement age and 71.5 percent of the benefit if they are disabled and between the ages of 50 and 59.
Unmarried children under the age of 18 or disabled children receive 75 percent of the principal beneficiary's benefit rate. Under special circumstances, former spouses, adopted children and grandchildren under the care of the primary beneficiary may also be eligible, but no other family members, such as siblings or cousins, are included in the surviving family member benefit system.
Special Lump Sum Death Payment
Social Security beneficiaries with enough credits on their records are eligible for a special lump sum death payment in the amount of $255, payable to surviving family members after the beneficiary's death. As with monthly benefits, however, the Social Security Administration limits the categories of family members who are eligible to receive this payment, starting with a spouse that was living with the beneficiary at the time of death. The SSA then considers children who were receiving Social Security benefits on the primary beneficiary's record at the time of death or are eligible due to disability or special circumstances. The payment is only made once, with spouses given priority in eligibility, or not at all if neither a spouse nor the children of the deceased beneficiary is eligible.
Limitations on Benefits for Family and Survivors
In addition to limiting the percentage of the principal beneficiary's benefits that eligible family members can receive individually, the SSA limits the amount of benefits a family can receive as a whole. Depending on the ages and situations in the family, the payments to all family members are usually capped at a total of 150 to 180 percent of the principal beneficiary's monthly benefit rate. If all payments to all eligible family members exceed this amount, each family member's benefits will be reduced proportionately. Benefits for divorced spouses are not included in the calculation for total family benefits.