Social Security work credits for employment outside the U.S.

Ted – Texas: My wife will be turning 65 next year. She does not have enough work credits here in the U.S. on her own to qualify for Social Security benefits, but she has worked in her home country, Spain, for many years. I am pretty sure there is an agreement to combine work histories to determine benefits but I cannot find any reference as to how her work history in Spain is evaluated to determine U.S. benefits. Also, if my wife applied for Social Security benefits under her combined work history, can she switch to spousal benefits when I apply?

Phil Moeller: The U.S. has what are called totalization agreements with many foreign countries that provide Social Security earning credits for work outside the U.S. Here is an explanation of the agreement with Spain. At first glance, it appears that your wife would be covered by the Spanish retirement system and would be paid by it. Here is what the explanation says about combining work credits:

How Credits Get Counted
You don’t have to do anything to have your credits in one country counted by the other country. If we need to count your credits under the Spanish system to help you qualify for a U.S. benefit, we will get a copy of your Spanish record directly from Spain when you apply for benefits. If Spain needs to count your U.S. credits to help you qualify for a Spanish benefit, they will get a copy of your U.S. record directly from the Social Security Administration when you apply for the Spanish benefit.

Although each country may count your credits in the other country, your credits are not actually transferred from one country to the other. They remain on your record in the country where you earned them and also can be used to qualify for benefits there.

If this explanation does not answer your question, I’d call Social Security and see if a representative can help you.

At the time you file for your own benefits, she should be able to file for a spousal benefit if it is greater than what she already is receiving. She would then receive what’s called an excess spousal benefit. It would equal the difference between what she was collecting and the higher spousal benefit.