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Can I Receive Benefits From Two Countries?

'Totalization' agreements govern payments to cross-border workers

Q. I was born in Canada. My husband, an American citizen, and I were married in 1990, and I became an American citizen in 2000. But all of my working days were in Canada, and I will be eligible to collect Old Age Security from there. Will I also be eligible for a Social Security spousal benefit?

A. You should be OK, provided you and your husband meet the qualifications for a spousal benefit. A Social Security spokesman tells me there's virtually no situation in which Social Security would reduce the benefit it pays because of what you're collecting in Canada. The Government Pension Offset, which can reduce a benefit if you get a U.S. federal, state or local government pension, doesn't apply to foreign pensions.

Qualifying for a Social Security spousal benefit will depend on a variety of factors, including your age and your husband's age and work history. Ordinarily, a wife cannot apply for a spousal benefit until her husband has filed for his own benefits.

By the way, a 1984 "totalization" agreement between the U.S. and Canada governs the benefits of people who have led cross-border lives. Its most important function is to help those who worked in both countries but didn't accumulate enough credits in either one to qualify for benefits. The agreement in effect allows them to pool their work credits so as to qualify in one country or the other.

You worked only in Canada, but the agreement could still affect you. When you apply for your U.S. benefit, for instance, you may have to obtain a certificate showing that you paid retirement system taxes in Canada and were thus exempt from paying U.S. Social Security taxes. Under the agreement, workers in both countries are protected from double taxation.

The U.S. has similar totalization agreements with about two dozen other countries.

For more information, visit the International Programs and Resources page on the Social Security website or write to the Social Security Administration, Office of International Programs, P.O. Box 17741, Baltimore, Md. 21235-7741.

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for The Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.

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