Enticed by new environments, low costs of living and senior-friendly health care systems, boomer retirees are heading overseas in droves. Roughly 400,000 American retirees now live abroad, according to the Social Security Administration, a figure that’s increased by nearly 20 percent since 2010.
American workers are also spending more career years overseas, and more retirees than ever have significant earnings histories outside the United States.
Whether they’ve worked abroad, intend to move or immigrated during their careers, these retirees all want to know how can they collect their Social Security benefits? Are they entitled to benefits from the U.S. government, foreign governments, both – or neither? And, of course, what taxes will they have to pay? In our increasingly global economy, any retirement advisor should be able to help clients answer these questions.
Can expats collect Social Security?
“Yes, you can receive payments if you’re residing abroad, unless you live in one of a few countries,” says Ines Zemelman, founder and president of Taxes for Expats. Those exceptions include Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and other former Soviet states – none of which are top destinations for U.S. retirees. Embassies located in U.S. retirement hotspots, on the other hand, may actually provide Social Security services – and even take applications. For travel-minded retirees who want to make sure they’ll be able to collect, the SSA provides the simple Payments Abroad Screening Tool.
For the most part, citizenship doesn’t affect eligibility, either. U.S. citizens living abroad – as well as dual citizens and non-citizens with U.S. earnings histories – can collect under most circumstances. The SSA provides a complete list of conditions and requirements in its publication “Your Payments While You are Outside the United States.”
Even residents of restricted countries may be able to receive benefits, though it can be tricky. The SSA lists a variety of restricted payment conditions, which include a tri-monthly appearance at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
“These exceptions are hard to come by,” says Zemelman. A more realistic option may be to head to a non-restricted country to pick up withheld payments.
Whether they live stateside or abroad, retirees with foreign work histories can usually still collect.
“If you worked in a country that has a Social Security Totalization Agreement with the U.S., credits you earned in that country can be combined with your US credits to meet the Social Security requirements – either in the U.S., in your resident country or both countries,” says Zemelman.
The U.S. has established these bilateral agreements with 26 countries, including Italy, Germany, Canada and the U.K. Designed to protect benefits for workers with international careers, they ensure similar legal structures and requirements among their member nations’ retirement programs.