Social Security Administration office
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How Social Security 5-Year Residency Rule Impacts Non-Citizen Spouses

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Aug. 3 2021, Published 3:04 p.m. ET

If you're entitled to Social Security payments but you don't live in the U.S. anymore, you can still receive payments, although certain rules apply. If you have a spousal relationship with a Social Security NH (number holder), you can also receive benefits if you satisfy other rules—a 5-year residency rule, for example.

In a 2015 explainer for The Wall Street Journal, Peggy and Chad Creveling of Creveling & Creveling Private Wealth Advisory walked readers through some of these restrictions.

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“Navigating the rules of U.S. Social Security benefits is complicated for any U.S. citizen, but it’s even more complex for U.S. citizens living abroad with [noncitizen] spouses,” they wrote.

They also explained that “whether your [noncitizen] spouse qualifies for either spousal or survivor benefits is considerably more complex and governed by a mishmash of historic Social Security treaties (or lack of) between the U.S. and various countries.”

Here are details on some of the rules.

Individuals can receive Social Security payments while living in other countries, with some notable exceptions.

Social Security check
Source: Getty Images

The U.S. Department of the Treasury prohibits payments to persons living in Cuba or North Korea, the Social Security Administration (SSA) said in Publication No. 05-10137. U.S. citizens can receive the withheld payments after moving to a country where payments are allowed, but non-U.S. citizens can’t receive payments for the time they spend in Cuba or North Korea, even if they move elsewhere.

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The administration also states that it generally can't send Social Security payments to persons living in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, although it does make exceptions for qualified individuals who consent to restricted payment conditions. Those who don't qualify will have their payments withheld until they move to a country where payments are allowed.

Refer to Publication No. 05-10137 for more information on payments to individuals abroad.

There’s a 5-year residency rule for non-citizens entitled to Social Security benefits through spousal relationships.

The SSA document RS 02610.030 covers spousal relationships in detail. For starters, non-citizens who are entitled to Social Security benefits through a spousal relationship—defined by the SSA as “a spouse, widow/widower, divorced spouse, surviving divorced spouse, or surviving divorced mother or father”—must meet two 5-year requirements to receive payments.

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ssa  year spousal relationship
Source: Social Security Administration Facebook

First, they must have been in that spousal relationship for 5 or more years, although they don’t need to be the same type of spousal relationship for those years. (For example, they could be a spouse for part of the 5-year span and a widow/widower for the rest.)

Second, they must have resided in the U.S. for 5 or more years, although that 5-year span doesn't have to be continuous.

The SSA provides the following example:

A and B are citizens of Indonesia. A has lived in the U.S. for 10 years. A and B became entitled to benefits in January 2004 and then moved to Indonesia. B resided in the U.S. for 5 years while she was married to the NH. A meets the alien exception code of 3 (lived in the U.S. for 10 years) and B meets the 5-year residency requirement. Payments can be paid indefinitely to B while she is living outside the U.S. in Indonesia.

See RS 02610.030 for more guidance.

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