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Wednesday, August 7th 2019

Social Security: US Expats with Foreign Spouses

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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US Expats with foreign spouses

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For anyone wondering whether US expats living abroad are entitled to social security, the answer, generally, is yes. For anyone wondering whether foreign spouses of US expats are entitled to dependent or spousal Social Security benefits and Social Security survivor benefits the answer is more complicated, but generally also a yes. This article provides a brief overview of the rules, regulations, qualifications, and exceptions that regulate eligibility to social security for US expats and their foreign spouses. 

The information provided here, however, is intended as a guide only.  For definitive answers regarding the eligibility of individual US expats and the foreign spouses of US expats to claim social security, seek advice from the Social Security Administration.

Are US Citizens Living Abroad Entitled to Claim Social Security?

If a US citizen or green card holder is entitled to claim Social Security in the US, then they are also entitled to claim aboard. But to qualify for eligibility to claim Social Security, a US citizen or green card holder must satisfy three requirements. Firstly, they must have contributed payments to US Social Security for a minimum of 40 quarters (10 years). Secondly, they must be at least 62 years of age. Lastly, they must not be residents of certain blacklisted countries, which include Cuba and North Korea. US citizens and green card holders who are residents of  Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan are only eligible for restricted Social Security benefits.  

The size of the Social Security payments that a US citizen or green card holder is entitled to is dependent upon how much they have contributed to US Social Security and the age at which they choose to begin receiving their payments. The more you have contributed, and the later to choose to begin claiming (up to the age of 70), the greater the payments that you receive will be. 

US retirees who have spent most or all of their career working in the US generally need not worry about their eligibility to receive Social Security benefits aboard. The rules concerning the eligibility of US expats who have spent extensive portions of their career working outside of the US, however, are a little more complicated. 

US Expats with Foreign Spouses

Eligibility to Receive Social Security Benefits: Totalization Agreements

When living abroad, a US expat or green card holder’s eligibility to receive Social Security benefits is heavily dependant upon Totalization Agreements. Totalization Agreements are bilateral international treaties designed to ensure that the Social Security a US expat is entitled to commensurate with the total contributions he or she has made to US Social Security and the social security schemes of the foreign signatory counties in which they have worked during their career. 

So, even if a US expat or green card holder has contributed under the minimum threshold of 40 quarters of work in the US to qualify for Social Security, as long as they have spent enough time working in one or more counties that have Totalization Agreements with the US to make up for or exceed their deficit, they are still likely to be entitled to claim Social Security.

The current list of countries that the US has Totalization Agreements in place which includes:

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Luxembourg
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovak Republic
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom

US expats who have spent much of their careers working in countries that do not have Totalization Agreements in place with the US often incur what are known as Social Security benefit gaps. US expats that have worked less than the minimum 40 qualifying quarters in the US and have also failed to qualify for, or contribute the minimums required to receive  social security benefits from a foreign government may find themselves in the unfortunate situation whereby they are not entitled to claim Social Security from the US or the governments of the foreign countries in which they have worked.

Entitled to Claim Social Security

Are Foreign Spouses of US Expats Entitled to Claim Spousal Social Security Benefits?

In many cases, yes. Foreign spouses of US expats are usually entitled to receive spousal Social Security benefits even if they are not US citizens or the holders of a green card. Again, however, the rules here are complicated. Foreign spouses are usually entitled to full, indefinite payments of spousal Social Security benefits whether they reside in or outside of the US as long as they are at least 62 years of age, married to a retiree with US citizenship, and satisfy one or more of the following requirements:

  1. They are a citizen of one of the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea (South), Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, or the United Kingdom (please be aware that this list of counties is subject to change). Note that the spouse need not necessarily also be a resident of the aforementioned counties. 

  2.   They are a resident of one of the following countries:
    Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea (South), Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom (please be aware that this list of counties is subject to change). Note that the spouse need not necessarily also be a citizen of the aforementioned counties. 

  3. Foreign spouses of US expats who are neither a citizen of a country listed in point 1 or a resident of a country listed in point 2 may still be entitled to claim spousal Social Security benefits so long as they are married to a US citizen and have lived together with their wife or husband in the US for longer than five years. This five-year duration need not necessarily have been continuous. 

Normally, foreign spouses of US expats who are neither citizens of any country listed in point 1 or a residents of any country listed in point 2 and have not lived in the US together with their US citizenship holding wife/husband for a minimum of five years, will find that their eligibility to receive Social Security benefits will be revoked in the event that they spend six consecutive months or longer outside of the US. 

It is possible for foreign spouses of US expats to attain US citizenship, and in so doing, automatically receive full eligibility to receive Social Security benefits regardless of the 3  requirements listed above. Learn how marriage to a US citizen can help foreign spouses of US expats gain US citizenship here

Do Widowed Foreign Spouses of US Expats Retain Their Entitlement to Spousal Social Security Benefits?

Foreign widows and widowers of US citizens who have not remarried and who meet the requirements that determine eligibility to receive spousal Social Security benefits are, under normal circumstances,  automatically eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits. Those that are not citizens or residents of qualifying countries and have not resided in the US for the minimum duration of five years before the time of their wife or husband’s passing have the option to remain in, or relocate to the US until they have satisfied the 5 years of residency required to qualify for entitlement to claim Social Security survivor benefits.

We hope that this article has given you a useful overview of the rules that govern the eligibility of US expats and their foreign spouses to receive Social Security benefits. We would like to reiterate that this article is a guide only. To get a comprehensive, definitive overview of your circumstances affect your eligibility to receive Social Security benefits, please seek the advice of the Social Security Administration.

US citizens living abroad or considering making the move to another country will also benefit from reading our guide to filling US taxes as an expat.

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