More than retirement
Social Security is known for its retirement benefits, but it also offers essential life insurance features to aid survivors at a time of financial and emotional hardship. In fact, it is likely that the value of the survivor's insurance you have under Social Security exceeds that of your individual life insurance. Non-citizen widows -- and widowers -- can obtain survivor benefits, but only under certain conditions.
Living in the U.S.
The non-citizen surviving spouse who is living in the U.S. must meet the lawful presence requirement to obtain death benefits. Legal permanent residents -- green card holders -- qualify. Among other non-citizens who meet the requirement are refugees, people who are seeking or have been granted political asylum and Cuban-Haitian entrants.
Outside the U.S.
Non-citizen widows and widowers living abroad, with limited exceptions, must satisfy the Social Security residency requirement: They must have lived in the United States at least five years, and their marriage must have existed for part of those years.
Social Security defines being outside the U.S. as not being in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands or American Samoa.
One main exception to the residency requirement is for widows or widowers who are citizens of one of the countries Social Security's Country List 1 or residents of a nation on Country List 3. These lists basically overlap, and are limited to European countries except for Japan, South Korea and Chile, on both lists,. and Israel, on List 1.
The two other exceptions are for surviving non-citizen spouses who became eligible for monthly benefits before Jan. 1, 1985, or whose entitlement is based on the record of a worker who died during military service or as a result of a service-connected disease or injury.
Social Security provides a useful screening tool to determine if you are eligible for benefits overseas.
Once the surviving non-citizen spouse meets the residency requirement or qualifies under one of the exceptions, she is subject to rules that generally apply to those receiving benefits outside the U.S. That means citizens of numerous nations will be eligible to receive survivor benefits overseas for an unlimited period.
Specifically, that applies to citizens of more than 50 countries around the world on Social Security's Country List 2.
It also applies to citizens of Country List 4 in certain cases. This long list of countries includes some that are not on the three lists already mentioned, such as China and India.
By special agreement with Social Security, this list is open to residents of Austria, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. The agreement is restricted to survivors whose spouse was a U.S. citizen at the time of his death or a citizen of the survivor's country of residence. or the spouse lived in the U.S. at least 10 years or earned a minimum of 40 credits in the U.S. Social Security system.
Non-citizen widows and widowers who leave the U.S. and do not meet any of the above criteria will lose their survivor benefits after six months.
Application and Benefits Information
Normal survivor benefits and application rules apply to qualified non-citizen widows and widowers. Social Security advises you to apply as soon as possible because some benefits do not start with the death of the spouse. Application cannot be made online. Social Security provides links to its offices in the U.S. and overseas.