What Expat Americans with Foreign Spouses Need to Know About Social Security

Chad Creveling |

By Peggy Creveling, CFA and Chad Creveling, CFA

This article is for general information purposes only. Please consult with the U.S. Social Security Administration for the most up-to-date information on your situation.

Expat Americans eligible for U.S. Social Security benefits and married to non-U.S. citizens often wonder if their foreign spouses qualify for Social Security survivor benefits (generally the deceased U.S. worker’s full benefit). In certain cases, the answer is yes. Additionally, while the U.S. expat is still alive, their foreign spouse may also qualify to receive dependent or spousal Social Security benefits (generally half of the U.S. expat’s benefit).

The rules governing foreign spousal and survivor benefits are complicated. We’ve answered some common questions below to help you determine if your foreign spouse may qualify for either type of benefit. There are many exceptions and qualifications to the rules, however, so be sure to check with the Social Security Administration for specifics on your situation.

As an American citizen living outside the U.S., can I still receive Social Security benefits?

Yes, if you are either a U.S. citizen or green card holder, you can generally receive U.S. Social Security payments if the following are also true:

  1. You are eligible for Social Security payments, meaning that you have worked and contributed to U.S. Social Security for at least 10 years, earning the mandatory 40 credits.
  2. You are at least 62 years old. You can receive a greater annual benefit if you put off collecting benefits until you’re up to 70 years old.
  3. You are not a resident of certain countries, such as Cuba or North Korea.

While I receive Social Security benefits, can my foreign (non-U.S. citizen, non-green-card holder) spouse also receive spousal Social Security benefits if we live outside the United States?

Depending on your situation, spousal Social Security benefits may be paid to your foreign spouse. For any spouse who is not a U.S. citizen or green-card holder, the general rule is that Social Security payments must stop if the spouse has been outside of the U.S. for six consecutive calendar months. There are a number of exceptions that allow payments outside to the U.S. to continue, however, mostly based on either the receiver’s country of citizenship or residence. For example, for a foreign spouse to receive U.S. Social Security benefits:

  1. Your foreign spouse must be of full retirement age and you, the retired U.S. worker, must be receiving Social Security benefits. (If your foreign spouse is at least 62, he or she may still be able to receive spousal benefits at a reduced rate.)
  2. Additionally, if your spouse is a citizen (not necessarily a resident) of one of the following countries, there are no further requirements. He or she may receive ongoing Social Security spousal benefits outside of the United States:
    • Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea (South), Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom
  3. Alternatively, if your foreign spouse is a resident (not necessarily a citizen) of one of the following countries with which the U.S. has a Social Security agreement, there are also no further requirements and he or she may continue to receive Social Security spousal benefits:
    • 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
  4. Five-year resident requirement: If your foreign spouse is neither a citizen nor resident of the countries listed above, he or she may still may be able to collect ongoing spousal Social Security benefits if the two of you lived together in the U.S. for at least five years while married (not necessarily continuously).

Please note: Lists of countries provided are subject to change. Check with the Social Security Administration to see if your foreign spouse will be able to receive benefits based on their country of citizenship or residence.

If I die, will my foreign spouse receive survivor benefits?

Yes. Generally, your foreign widow or widower can receive Social Security survivor benefits if they meet the requirements for spousal benefits listed above and have not remarried. They may receive reduced benefits as early as age 60 (if not disabled) or full benefits at full retirement age or older. If they do not initially meet the five-year U.S. residency requirement, they can choose to relocate to the U.S. after being widowed to complete the residency requirement and then qualify for Social Security benefits.

What if I have an ex-spouse who is already entitled to spousal or survivor benefits?Will my current foreign spouse still qualify for benefits?

Generally, yes. Provided your current foreign spouse meets the requirements to receive either spousal or survivor benefits as listed above, it does not matter if an ex-spouse also qualifies for benefits based on their former relationship with you.

Summary

If you are a U.S. expat who qualifies to receive U.S. Social Security benefits and is married to a non-U.S. citizen, your
foreign spouse may qualify for Social Security spousal and survivor benefits. To learn more, check with the U.S. Social
Security Administration for the most up-to-date information on your situation.

Additional Resources
Your Payments While You Are Outside the U.S.
Social Security Benefits Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST)
Social Security Handbook