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Social Security and You: What Happens to Your Social Security check if You Live Abroad?

Tom Margenau on

Maybe it's because COVID-19 restrictions are easing up a bit. And some people probably have a bad case of wanderlust. I'm sure others are just thinking about retiring and returning to their homeland. Or perhaps still others see some of the same websites I do that entice you with headlines similar to this one I recently read: "Live like royalty on your Social Security check in Belize!"

Anyway, I've received more than a few emails lately from folks who want to know what happens with their Social Security benefits once they pack their bags and head to some foreign land to live.

Anyone planning to do that needs to read a booklet that the Social Security Administration produces called "Social Security -- Your payments While You Are Outside the United States." You can find it online at the SSA's website, www.socialsecurity.gov. Just click the "Publications" link near the bottom of the homepage. Once there, pull down the "Topics" menu and you'll find the booklet under the "General Information" section.

By reading that publication, you will learn that if you are a U.S. citizen, the rules are pretty simple. You can get your Social Security benefits almost anywhere in the world. However, the Treasury Department doesn't allow any federal government checks to be sent to North Korea or Cuba. 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.

If you are citizen of one of the 23 countries that have Social Security treaty agreements with the U.S. (they are listed in the aforementioned booklet), 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 such as Israel, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

 

Page six of the 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 Social Security beneficiaries in this country who are under their full retirement age and making more than about $19,000 per year. But if you are under your full retirement age 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.

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