How to Claim Social Security Benefits While Living Abroad

The benefits of being an American do not stop at the border, which is excellent news for retirees looking to live abroad. In particular, expatriates are free to collect their Social Security benefits while living abroad in an adopted country. (See also: 13 Financial Steps to Take Before Retiring Abroad)

While Uncle Sam will forward your Social Security benefit checks to whatever sunny beach on a foreign shore that you choose to retire to, it is important for you to understand just what you'll have to do to make sure the claiming process goes smoothly. Here's everything you need to know about claiming your Social Security benefits while living the retired life abroad.

You can't take Medicare with you

Let's start with the bad news: Medicare does not pay for any care you receive abroad. That's because Medicare coverage is specific to American medical providers and does not cover service outside of the United States.

Many retirees living abroad may still choose to enroll in Medicare so that they can return to America in case of a serious medical issue. There are severe financial penalties for enrolling in Medicare after the initial enrollment period (the three months before, the month of, and the three months after you turn 65), which means it may be worth your while to enroll in Medicare if there is any possibility you will return to the U.S.

That being said, it's quite possible that you will be eligible for low-cost, high-quality health care coverage in your adopted home. Many countries extend their health care services to foreign residents, and one of the potential benefits of retiring abroad is the possibility of cheaper and better health care. (See also: 4 Affordable Retirement Spots With World-Class Health Care)

But Social Security benefits are pretty portable

All Social Security recipients are now required to accept their benefits electronically, which is quite a boon to retirees living abroad. This means you can either have your benefits directly deposited into a foreign bank account based in your new home, or you can have the money deposited into an American bank account that you have maintained while abroad.

Some countries require foreign residents to open a local bank account and have a regular direct deposit into that account. Social Security benefits offer an ideal method for fulfilling this obligation.

If you live in a country without such a requirement, you may choose to simply maintain your U.S. based bank, in part because many retirement destinations are all about paying in cash. Everyone from utility providers to grocers to dentists only accept cash, which makes maintaining your home bank much simpler. As long as you can withdraw funds from an ATM or banking office in your new home, there's no need to set up a new bank account or have your Social Security benefits routed elsewhere.

Restrictions apply to certain countries

There are two countries in the world that Uncle Sam will not send your Social Security benefits to: North Korea and Cuba. The United States Department of the Treasury has imposed sanctions on these countries which makes it impossible for American expats to receive their benefits while living there. The Social Security Administration will withhold your benefits payments while you are living in either of these two countries, but you can access your withheld money as soon as you move to a country where the U.S. will send payments.

You will also generally not be able to access your Social Security benefits while living in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. The Social Security Administration may be able to make exceptions for certain eligible beneficiaries who make their homes in these countries (such as appearing in person at a U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate every six months).

Rules are different if you're not a U.S. citizen

American citizens are always eligible to receive their Social Security benefits while living abroad. However, non-U.S. citizens who are eligible to receive Social Security benefits (because they paid into the system or are dependents of someone who paid into the system) have a limit to the amount of time they may receive their benefits while away from American soil. Noncitizens will receive their benefits for six months while living abroad, after which point the Social Security Administration will stop payments. Payments will be reinstated after the noncitizen has returned to the U.S. and stayed there for a full calendar month.

There are some exceptions to these rules, which is why the Social Security Administration has created a Payments Abroad Screening Tool to help you figure out if you will continue to receive your Social Security benefits while living abroad.

Don't forget about the tax man

Just because you're living abroad doesn't mean you can forget about paying the tax man. This is especially important for retirees who are receiving Social Security benefits, since your benefits can be garnished to pay taxes you owe. American expatriates need to understand their tax requirements so they don't accidentally cause themselves a major financial problem.

To start, in addition to the 1040 form that every American has to fill out each year, expats living abroad may also need to complete Form 2555 to declare foreign earned income (income you receive from a job), Form 1116 to declare a foreign tax credit, and Form 8938 to declare specified foreign financial assets (such as assets you hold in foreign bank accounts, brokerage accounts, mutual funds, and unit trusts).

The reporting threshold to the IRS for specified foreign financial assets is $200,000 for single filers living abroad, and $400,000 for married couples. However, you are also required to report foreign assets greater than $10,000 to the Department of the Treasury, using FinCEN Form 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR). Failure to file with the Department of the Treasury can result in stiff penalties of up to 50 percent of the balance of the account, and possible criminal charges.

You may also owe taxes to your adopted country, so be sure to understand the tax laws of your new home and file taxes accordingly. (See also: 9 Things to Know Before Retiring Abroad)

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