By Timothy Cuddigan
Ellen struggles with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, and her parents worry about her future. (Ellen is a real person and gave us permission to tell her story here, but to protect her privacy we are not using her real name.)
Ellen, 24, has had multiple hospitalizations for suicide attempts since she was a teenager. She takes medications, and sees a psychiatrist and a therapist on a regular basis.
She wants to work, but her symptoms cause employment problems. As a result, she has worked at several jobs, but has never earned much money. Ellen is not married and lives with her parents, and her personal life is chaotic. Her parents worry about what will happen to her when they are no longer around, and they especially worry about her medical needs.
When Ellen’s father retired and applied for Social Security retirement benefits, he indicated that he had a child who had become disabled before she was 22 years old. Ellen applied for benefits as a Disabled Adult Child (DAC) on her father’s earnings record. Ellen’s lawyer gathered medical and school records, obtained doctors’ reports about her condition and her limitations, and presented her testimony to an administrative law judge at a hearing.
The judge awarded her DAC benefits because Ellen was able to prove that she is disabled, her disability began before the age of 22, she has not been able to work successfully and she is unmarried. Her parents are relieved to have a more secure future in place for their daughter with a modest monthly check and Medicare benefits. Ellen hopes she will be able to work when her conditions are under better control.
Ellen met the requirements for one of three categories of children who may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Unfortunately, I have discovered that not everyone knows about these opportunities to help their children receive additional monetary support. There are in fact three different ways your child can receive support, which are detailed below.
Adults Disabled Since Childhood
To be eligible for disability benefits as a disabled adult child, your child must be older than 18 and have a “qualifying disability” that began prior to reaching age 22. To be a “qualifying disability” under Social Security rules, the disability must meet all the criteria of a condition that is included in the Social Security Administration’s “Listing of Impairments” (commonly referred to as the “Blue Book”) or be equivalent in severity to a listed impairment, or an individual must be unable to perform any substantial work for pay because of his or her limitations. The disability must have lasted at least 12 months, be expected to last for at least 12 months, or could result in death.
As a parent, you must also be receiving Social Security benefits due to retirement or disability or receiving benefits from your spouse who has died (survivor’s benefits). Your child must apply for Disabled Adult Children (DAC) benefits on a parent’s account. DAC benefits are also referred to as Childhood Disability Benefits by the Social Security Administration.
If your adult child qualifies for Social Security disability, he or she can receive benefits as long as he or she remains unmarried. The benefits will end if he or she marries, unless he or she marries another disabled adult child.
Low-Income Disabled Children
Disabled children whose families have low income may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Childhood SSI is a program designed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to help limited-resource families get the help they need for their disabled children.
To qualify in this category, your child must be under the age of 18 and be either blind or disabled. The disability, according to Social Security requirements, must result in “marked and severe functional limitations or can be expected to result in death and has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Children may be eligible for SSI disability benefits beginning as early as the day they are born up to the age of 18; there is no minimum age requirement.
Winning a disability case is never easy, and winning SSI disability benefits for a child is no different. The first set of hurdles to overcome involves limits on income and resources. The SSA looks at all income sources available to the child, including parents’ income and stepparents’ income if the child is living with a stepparent and one natural or adoptive parent.
The limit on parental assets is $2,000 for a single parent and $3,000 if there are two married parents. You will be required to present proof of income and resources to the SSA. In terms of income, SSA has a chart (http://bit.ly/ssagovbip) to help determine payable amounts. The formula is complicated and involves both earned and unearned income limits; because of this, the simplest solution is to call Social Security.
The second group of hurdles is proving the child’s physical or mental disability. SSA has a collection of medical conditions (the “Listing of Impairments” or “Blue Book” mentioned previously) that generally are severe enough to warrant the immediate awarding of benefits, so long as he or she meets specific criteria. However, proving that your child meets the criteria in the listings is complicated and seldom straightforward.
If your child is approved for SSI benefits, the case will be reviewed occasionally to make sure that the child is still financially eligible and still has a disability. Once your child turns 18, his or her case will be reviewed again and assessed under adult disability criteria as part of an SSA process called “redetermination,” which has its own rules and complications.
Social Security Auxiliary Benefits Many disabled workers who apply for Social Security Disability benefits believe that they are the only ones in their families eligible to receive benefits from SSA. This is not necessarily the case. In some cases, a disabled worker’s family members, such as their dependent children—whether disabled or not—may be able to receive benefits, as well.
The benefits that are paid to family members are referred to as auxiliary benefits. If a parent, adoptive parent or stepparent is receiving Social Security retirement or SSDI benefits (or if a parent is deceased and was entitled to one of these benefits before he or she died), the child may be eligible to receive auxiliary benefits. Family members of those who receive SSI are not eligible for auxiliary benefits from the Social Security Administration.
To qualify for auxiliary benefits, your child must be unmarried and under the age of 18. However, if your child is a full-time student enrolled at an elementary or secondary school, he or she can continue to receive benefits until either graduation or two months after turning 19, whichever comes first. Under auxiliary benefits, a child is eligible for up to 50% of the parent’s monthly benefit, subject to a family maximum.
Qualifying for SSA children’s benefits can be a complex process with many rules and limitations. Although you are able to apply for SSDI benefits online, in order to apply for SSI or DAC benefits you need to call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to schedule a phone appointment. You may wish to consult with a Social Security disability benefits attorney or other professional to help guide you through the process.
Timothy Cuddigan has exclusively practiced disability law since 1994. He is the immediate past-president of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR) and a past president of NAMI Nebraska. He is recognized nationally for his knowledge of Social Security disability law and regularly speaks to regional and national audiences on this subject.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Call the NAMI Helpline at
text "NAMI" to 741741
Find Your Local NAMI