Can you get spousal benefits living in another country?


Q. My father-in-law was a United States citizen living in the Dominican Republic and receiving Social Security retirement benefits. He recently passed away. My mother-in-law is a Dominican Republic citizen, but was a legal permanent resident in the United States for about five years and has her own Social Security number. She did not become a U.S. citizen and no longer has permanent legal resident status. She has never worked outside the home and my in-laws were married for 56 years. Is my mother-in-law eligible to apply for and collect spousal benefits as a surviving spouse?
— Daughter-in-law

A. Certain people who live in certain foreign countries can be eligible for Social Security benefits, but from what you describe, it seems your mother-in-law in ineligible.

Because they were married for 56 years, we’re going to assume your mother-in-law is in her 70s.

If she was a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident living in the U.S., she would have been able to receive Social Security benefits worth 100 percent of her husband’s benefits, said Jody D’Agostini, a certified financial planner with AXA Advisors/The Falcon Financial Group in Morristown.

We know you said she didn’t work, but if she did, she would have received her own benefit if it was larger than your father-in-law’s.

D’Agostini said she would have needed to have worked for 40 quarters and earned the minimum credit amount.

In addition, there is a special lump-sum death benefit of $255 that could be paid if they were living in the same household when your father-in-law passed away.

“The Social Security Administration will generally stop making payments to noncitizens if they remain outside of the United States for six months or more in a row,” D’Agostini said. “If you want to restart the benefit, you would need to reside in the United States for at least a full calendar month.”

D’Agostini said nonresidents in some countries can continue their Social Security benefits while living abroad.

It’s always smart to check directly with Social Security to check one’s earnings records directly to see whether benefits are due. You can learn more here from the Social Security Administration.

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This story was originally published on Nov. 19, 2019. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.