Expatriation, Social Security, Pensions, Medicare

Concept art of an article about Expatriation and Social Security Payments, Pensions, Medicare: retired American couple (AI Art)

Several years ago, we received a message from a client in Mexico who was considering expatriation.

Our client, whom we’ll call “Mike,” asked us about our clients’ experience receiving Social Security payments after expatriation. When we explained that there’s no obligation to be a US citizen to receive Social Security payments in some countries, he was surprised.

“My understanding is that non-US citizens must visit the US at least once monthly in order to receive Social Security,” Mike wrote. “But there’s no way to go back if you don’t have a visitor’s visa or can’t get one.”

When we told Mike that this wasn’t true and that residents of almost every country can receive Social Security benefits regardless of their citizenship, he responded:

“This is huge. Many people where I live in Mexico are afraid of expatriating because they believe they will lose their Social Security.”

What is Expatriation?

Expatriation requires giving up your US citizenship and passport. In the case of a permanent resident, relinquishing your green card. After you expatriate, you must live as a foreigner outside the United States, although you can generally come back for visits.

The Only Way to Legally and Permanently End US Tax and Reporting Obligations

Expatriation is an admittedly radical step. But it’s the only way that a US citizen or Green Card holder can permanently disconnect from future tax obligations. And increasingly, it’s the only way that a (former) American can “exist” outside the US. Since US citizens living abroad are now routinely denied banking services, mortgages, insurance, and employment.

But the good news is that with a couple of exceptions, an expatriate can receive Social Security payments, income from pensions, and other US source income without needing to ever return to the US.

1) Expatriation and Social Security Payments

No restrictions exist on Social Security payments sent abroad unless you live in a country upon which the US government has imposed trade or financial restrictions. This includes countries like North Korea or Iran. In addition, if you live in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, or Vietnam, then the belief Mike had is partially correct. You must make a monthly visit either to the US or to a US embassy to pick up your payment.

One country where Social Security recipients really get screwed is New Zealand. A New Zealand citizen living in New Zealand who isn’t also a US citizen must visit the US at least once every six months in order to receive Social Security payments. The visit must last at least a full calendar month. In other words, if you’re in this situation, you would need to spend at least two calendar months in the US annually to maintain your Social Security benefits.

Here is a tool you can use to determine your eligibility for Social Security payments if you live outside the US: http://www.ssa.gov/international/payments_outsideUS.html.

If you’re not a US citizen, a withholding tax of 25.5% applies to your monthly payment. This tax may be reduced or eliminated if there’s a tax treaty between the US and your residence country. Whether or not you are a former US citizen has no effect on your eligibility for payment of this tax.

2) Expatriation and Pension Payments from US Sources

Most such payments are distributions from a “qualified” retirement plan. The term “qualified” refers to the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA-qualified plans include 401(k) plans and most state and federal pension plans.

The general rule for pension payments to non-US citizens living outside the US is that they’re subject to a 30% withholding tax. With one exception, if you live in a country with a tax treaty with the US, that withholding tax may be reduced or eliminated.

And that exception? If you’re wealthy enough to be a covered expatriate, you still pay the 30% withholding tax. But you can’t use a tax treaty to reduce this withholding tax. If the country you live in taxes pension income, your total tax burden on these payments could easily exceed 50%.

  • Military pensions have a special status. If you receive a pension based on active service in the military, you’ll generally lose it completely if you expatriate. Forewarned is forearmed.
  • Individual Retirement Accounts. An IRA is not considered an ERISA-qualified plan. But if you’re not a US citizen, it’s generally taxed the same way. You pay a 30% withholding tax on the taxable portion of the IRA. This is less if you live in a country with a tax treaty that reduces such a withholding tax. But once again, there’s an exception if you’re a covered expatriate. In that event, your IRA terminates when you expatriate, and you must pay tax on the entire untaxed portion of the plan. A small consolation: If you’re under 59½, the early distribution penalty doesn’t apply.

3) Expatriation and Medicare

You don’t need to be a US citizen to enroll in Medicare. But Medicare services are available only in the United States. Unless you have a passport from a visa waiver country, that means you need a visa to visit the United States. A visitor’s visa isn’t generally difficult to obtain. But you need to demonstrate your intent to return to your new home outside the USA. Unless you live in a country within easy flying distance of the USA, depending on Medicare as a non-US resident isn’t a very practical strategy.

In addition, you don’t want to spend enough time in the United States to again become subject to US tax on your worldwide income. As a rule of thumb, that means you should avoid spending more than an average of 120 days/year in the United States over a four-year period.

In summary, you generally do NOT forfeit Social Security or pension benefit if you expatriate. The payments are taxed differently, but with minor exceptions, there are no restrictions on such benefit payments.

How to Get a Second Passport: 7 Legal Ways

Thinking about a second passport? There are just seven official (legal) ways to get one. Find out which one is the best option for you: How to get a second passport.

Need Help?

We can assist in every phase of giving up your US citizenship or long-term residence. This includes helping you get a second passport before giving up US citizenship.

And if you’re not ready to expatriate, we can help you take advantage of tax breaks in the Tax Code that apply to US citizens and permanent residents living overseas.

Schedule a free no-obligation consultation with a Nestmann Associate to see if expatriation is right for you.

On another note, many clients first get to know us by accessing some of our well-researched courses and reports on important topics that affect you.

Like How to Go Offshore in 2024, for example. It tells the story of John and Kathy, a couple we helped from the heartland of America. You’ll learn how we helped them go offshore and protect their nestegg from ambulance chasers, government fiat and the decline of the US Dollar… and access a whole new world of opportunities not available in the US. Simply click the button below to register for this free program.

About The Author

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We have 40+ years experience helping Americans move, live and invest internationally…

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We have 40+ years experience helping Americans move, live and invest internationally…

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