Q&A: Social Security

September 3, 2000

Elderly immigrants face many problems that their younger counterparts do not. For example, older immigrants may have a harder time adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language, or getting a driver's license.

Other times, the problems may be more important – such as making enough money to put food on their table. Luckily, social security helps many elderly immigrants support themselves and meet the basic economic requirements of survival in this society.

Because immigrants frequently travel for long periods outside the country, they may have problems with social security that other elderly Americans do not. This article covers this basic question – "What happens to my social security "What happens to my social security payments when I leave the country?"


I am a US citizen, and planning to travel to Israel to for 3 weeks next summer. Will I continue to get my social security payments?


The first important thing to understand is that you must be outside the US for at least 30 days for there to be any affect on your payments. So, in your case, you will not have to worry about your social security payments.


What if we extend our visit to 30 days or more? Then what will happen?


If you are a U.S. citizen, you may receive your Social Security payments outside the U.S. as long as you are otherwise eligible for them. However, there are certain countries where payments will not be sent. For example, payments will not be sent to countries of the former Soviet Union, (other than Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Russia).


What about citizens of other countries who are receiving social security? How will their travel affect their payments?


Citizens of certain other countries (mostly in Western Europe, but also Canada and Israel), Social Security payments will keep coming no matter how long you stay outside the U.S., as long as you are eligible for the payments and are within a country in which you may receive payments.

Citizens of countries other than these will have their payments stop after they have been outside the U.S. for 6 months. (There are a rare few exceptions to this rule).

Once this happens, they cannot be started again until you come back and stay in the U.S. for a whole calendar month. This means you have to be in the U.S. on the first minute of the first day of a month and stay through the last minute of the last day of that month.


Are there other requirements for regaining social security for dependents and widows/widowers?


Yes. If you receive benefits as a dependent or survivor of the person entitled to social security (the "worker"), special requirements may affect your right to receive social security payments while you are outside the U.S.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you must have lived in the U.S. for at least 5 years. During that 5 years, the family relationship on which benefits are based must have existed. For example, if you are receiving benefits as a spouse, you must have been married to the worker and living in the U.S. for at least 5 years.

Children who cannot meet the residency requirement on their own may be considered to meet it if it is met by the worker and other parent (if any). However, children adopted outside the U.S. will not be paid outside the U.S., even if the residency requirement is met.

The residency requirement does not apply if you are a citizen of Israel, and in a few other cases.


What must I do to protect my rights to benefits?


If you are living outside the U.S., the U.S. social security administration will send you a questionnaire periodically to fill out and return. This informs them whether you are still eligible for benefits. You must return the questionnaire to the office that sent it to you as soon as possible; if you do not, your payments will stop.

In addition to responding to the questionnaire, it is your responsibility to notify the social security administration about changes that could affect your payments. If you fail to report something or deliberately make a false statement, you could be penalized by a fine or imprisonment. You may also lose some of your payments if you do not report changes promptly.


Must I pay taxes on my social security payment while I am overseas?


Yes. If you are a U.S. citizen or resident, up to 85 percent of the Social Security benefits received may be subject to the Federal income tax.

If you file a Federal income tax return as an "individual" and your combined income is $25,000 to $34,000, you may have to pay taxes on up to 50 percent of your Social Security benefits. "Combined income" means your adjusted gross income plus nontaxable interest plus one-half of your Social Security benefits. If your combined income is over $34,000, you may have to pay taxes on up to 85 percent of your Social Security benefits.

If you file a joint tax return, you may have to pay taxes on up to 50 percent of your Social Security benefits if you and your spouse have a combined income of $32,000 to $44,000. If your combined income is over $44,000, you may have to pay taxes on up to 85 percent of your Social Security benefits.

If you are a member of a couple and file a separate return, you probably will pay taxes on your benefits.

If you are not a U.S. citizen or a resident, Federal income taxes will be withheld from your benefits. The tax is 30 percent of 85 percent of your benefit amount.

It will be withheld from the benefits of all nonresident aliens, except those who reside in countries which have tax treaties with the U.S. that do not permit taxing of U.S. Social Security benefits (or provide for a lower tax rate).

After the end of the year, you will receive a statement showing the amount of benefits you received during the year.

In addition to US taxation, many foreign governments tax U.S. Social Security benefits as well.

Keep in mind that Social Security benefits are calculated in U.S. dollars. They are not increased or decreased because of changes in international exchange rates.


Contact John Byrley at tel: 410-719-1501.

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