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Social Security with Foreign Work History: Totalization Agreements

Last week I was a guest on Rick Ferri’s Bogleheads on Investing podcast. You can listen to that podcast here. (The Bogleheads discussion thread is here, if you want to post any comments.)

One question that a few Bogleheads had asked was about how a US citizen can qualify for U.S. Social Security benefits if they were covered under a foreign social security system for a portion of their working career.

I gave a very brief answer on the podcast, but I wanted to discuss that topic more thoroughly here.

In short, how exactly it plays out depends on which other country you worked in. The U.S. has “totalization agreements” with many countries that provide the rules for how a worker will be treated, but the exact details vary from one agreement to another. (There’s no way around such a situation, given that each country has its own unique tax and social security systems.)

And, unfortunately, given that the specifics vary for each of the agreements, it’s unlikely that you’ll find anybody who is a true expert on any one of them. (I most definitely am not. Despite dealing with Social Security topics all the time, it would be rare for me to get even two people asking about the same totalization agreement in a given year.)

Generally speaking, however, the effects of the totalization agreements are to:

  1. Eliminate dual taxation that would otherwise occur (i.e., simultaneously paying into two countries’ social security systems), and
  2. Allow you to qualify for benefits when you might not otherwise qualify.

Qualifying for Benefits (“Totalization”)

If you meet all the basic requirements under one country’s system, you will get a regular benefit from that country.

If you have at least 6 credits (“quarters of coverage”) under the U.S. Social Security system, but you do not have the 40 credits that would ordinarily be necessary to qualify for a retirement benefit, your credits will be “totalized.” That is, your credits under the foreign social security system will be counted toward qualifying for U.S. Social Security.

And the opposite would happen as well — if you don’t quite qualify for coverage under the foreign social security system, totalization would allow your U.S. periods of coverage to be counted toward qualifying there.

Calculating Benefits

If you end up qualifying for U.S. Social Security benefits via totalization, there is a special set of rules for calculating the benefit. You can find the exact details here, but very roughly what’s going on is that:

  • Only your U.S. earnings are included in the calculation, and
  • The benefit that is calculated based on those U.S. earnings is ultimately multiplied by a fraction, which represents the portion of your career for which you were paying into the U.S. system.

Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset

Usually, when you receive a pension from employment for which you did not pay U.S. Social Security taxes, the windfall elimination provision (WEP) applies, reducing your primary insurance amount. With regard to foreign social security benefits, however, the WEP will not apply if you are:

  • Entitled to a U.S. totalization benefit (i.e. you only qualified for a U.S. Social Security benefit by counting your credits from the foreign social security system), or
  • Entitled to a regular U.S. benefit, as well as a foreign benefit which is based on a totalization agreement with the U.S. (i.e. you only qualified for the foreign social security benefit via counting your U.S. credits), and you are not receiving any other pension based on non-covered work (e.g., a pension from the state of Illinois).

Finally, a foreign social security benefit will not trigger the government pension offset (GPO).

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  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
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  • Click here to see the full list.

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