Social Security Benefits Overseas

By Tom Margenau

March 26, 2014 6 min read

As you read this, I should be sitting on a talcum-powder-soft white sand beach in Aruba, sipping Mai Tais with my wife and watching bikini-clad bronzed beauties saunter by as the tropical sun sinks slowly over the turquoise waters of the southern Caribbean. (OK — first, a cautionary note. My wife generally doesn't bother to read my columns. But if any of you are ever talking to her, don't mention the bikinied babes. Just tell her I said I was mesmerized by the local wildlife!)

Anyway, this is one of several trips we will be taking to foreign locales this year honoring our 40th wedding anniversary and spending what few nickels we've managed to put aside over the last four decades.

And because I just can't get Social Security off my mind, even while lazing on tropical beaches, I'm going to take this opportunity to discuss what happens to Social Security benefits when people live overseas.

If you are a U.S. citizen, the rules are pretty simple. You can get your Social Security benefits almost anywhere in the world. The Treasury Department doesn't allow any federal government checks to be sent to North Korea or Cuba, but it's unlikely any of my readers are planning a move to those lovely lands. And there are Social Security restrictions that prevent benefits from being sent to Vietnam and most of the republics that formerly made up the Soviet Union (places like Belarus, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, etc.). There are some exceptions to those Social Security restrictions, if any of those remote places are beckoning you in retirement.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, but you have lived in this country legally and worked and earned Social Security benefits, then the rules get a little more complicated. I will briefly explain some of them. And I will frequently refer you to a booklet that the Social Security Administration produces called "Social Security: Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States." You can find the booklet online at SSA's website. Here is a link: http://www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/EN-05-10137.pdf.

If you are citizen of one of the 23 countries that have Social Security treaty agreements with the U.S., then you also can get your benefits anywhere in the world (with the same restrictions that apply to U.S. citizens outlined above). You'll find the list of countries on page five of the booklet. The list includes most European countries as well as places like Israel, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Page six of the above referenced booklet has another list of countries. If you are a citizen of one of those countries, you can get your Social Security benefits while living outside the U.S., but only if you are receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits. If you get Social Security dependent or survivors benefits, then the rules really get messy — way too complicated to explain in the short space of this column. Please refer to the booklet for more information.

If you are not a citizen of one of the countries listed on pages five and six of the booklet, but you are receiving U.S. Social Security benefits, then as a general rule those benefits will stop once you have been outside the country for more than six months.

If you are getting Social Security benefits while living overseas, you are generally subject to the same rules and regulations that apply to Social Security beneficiaries in the United States. And some of the rules are even more restrictive. For example, there is an earnings penalty that applies to any Social Security beneficiary in this country who is under age 66 and making more than $15,400 per year. But if you are under age 66 and living overseas, you won't get your Social Security check for any month you work over 45 hours, no matter how much money you make. There are exceptions to this rule. The most common is this: If you work for a U.S. corporation overseas, then you are subject to the more lenient earnings penalty rules that apply to U.S. residents.

If you are getting Social Security disability benefits while living overseas, the same rules apply to you as apply to people living in this country. That means, for example, that your claim will be periodically reviewed to make sure you are still disabled.

If, in addition to whatever U.S. Social Security benefits you might have earned, you also get a pension from another country, that pension may reduce or even eliminate the amount of Social Security benefits you are due. These are the same rules that impact people in this country who get pensions from jobs not covered by Social Security (like teachers in some states). I've explained these rules many times in past columns.

If you are a U.S. citizen living overseas, the benefits you receive are subject to the same income tax payments that apply to U.S. residents. If you are not a U.S. citizen, then SSA will automatically withhold a portion of your benefits to cover possible tax obligations — although there are some exceptions to that rule.

This column just very briefly summarized some very complicated rules that apply to Social Security beneficiaries living overseas. If you are now, or someday will be one of those people, don't use this column as your gospel. Instead, please refer to the booklet referenced above.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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