Ask Larry: Can We Still Collect Social Security If We Move Abroad?

Today’s Social Security column addresses questions about whether people living outside the US can still collect their Social Security benefits, how payments are made when eligible for two benefits at once and survivor’s benefits before retirement benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.

Can We Still Collect Social Security If We Move Abroad?

Hi Larry, Both I and my spouse are citizens of India and currently in the US. As applicable, the below conditions are satisfied: 1) I earned 40 credits by contributing to the US Social Security system and 2) my spouse satisfies the additional requirement of five years of residency in US.

We seek a clarification if there are any other stipulations that over-ride the eligibility for regularly receiving Social Security retirement benefit payments abroad once we become eligible at 62 without visiting US every six months for 30 days stay?

We wanted to understand if we still can get Social Security benefits if we move back to India. Just to let you know India has not signed any Totalization Agreement with US. Thanks, Amit

Hi Amit, Yes, since you have 40 QCs, you can be paid Social Security retirement benefits while living in India. And as long as your wife has been married to and living you in the US for at least five years, then your wife can be paid spousal or survivor benefits while living in India.

You and your wife may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to ensure your household receives the highest lifetime benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Our software can also confirm your correct benefit amount, ensuring you aren’t being paid too little or too much, which could lead to potential clawbacks due to Social Security’s overpayment to you. Best, Larry

Will I Receive Two Payments From Social Security Or Just One?

Hi Larry, I have a pension of about $4,000 making me subject to reductions with both WEP and GPO. I am turning 65 this year. If my spouse predeceases me and I end up applying for both retirement and survivor’s benefits. Some sources say I can get only one while others say it’s the total of the two.

What is correct regarding survivor benefits and retirement benefits and how, if at all, do the WEP and GPO fit in? Thanks, Tom

Hi Tom, If you qualify for both Social Security retirement and survivor benefits and if you apply for both benefits, Social Security always pays at least the retirement benefit. If the survivor benefit rate is higher than the retirement benefit rate, then Social Security pays a partial, or excess, survivor benefit in addition to the retirement benefit.

The result in most cases is that the eligible individual ends up receiving a total of the higher benefit rate. The WEP will reduce your retirement benefit amount and the GPO will reduce your survivor’s benefit.

When people are collecting more than one type of Social Security benefit, the benefits are combined into a single payment unless either of the benefits is a disability benefit. Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits are paid from a separate trust fund than retirement and survivor benefits, so if a dually entitled beneficiary receives SSDI then that benefit payment is paid separately from their other benefit. Best, Larry

Can I Collect Widow’s Benefits Now At Age 64 And Switch To My Own Unreduced Benefit At FRA?

Hi Larry, I am 64. My FRA is 67. Can I collect Social Security widower’s benefits on my husband’s record now (a reduced amount due to me being under 67), and switch to my own record when I get to my FRA and get my full benefit? Thanks, Lynne

Hi Lynne, I’m sorry for your loss. You could claim widow’s benefits now and then claim your own unreduced benefits at your full retirement age (FRA), but whether or not you could currently be paid benefits depends on how much you’re earning. If you’re working, Social Security would need to withhold $1 of your benefits for each $2 that you earn in excess of this year’s exempt amount.

Prior to applying, you’ll want to make sure that you’re choosing the best possible filing strategy. Your best filing strategy could be either filing for reduced widow’s benefits early and then switching to your own record at 70, or filing for reduced retirement benefits on your own record early and then filing for unreduced widow’s benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

Normally, you would want to start out drawing the lower benefit first and then switch to the higher record when it reaches its highest potential rate. Best, Larry

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