In recent years, many U.S. retirees have headed abroad. In 2013, approximately 400,000 Americans received their Social Security checks overseas—an 11% increase from 2008. The exotic locales and a luxe standard of living for less are enticing. But as idyllic as the dream may be, managing your money in another country can be complex, notes Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning at the Schwab Center for Financial Research.
When abroad, everything from buying real estate to paying taxes and managing your estate plan typically comes with a new set of rules (and more paperwork). Here’s what you need to know.
Investigate your new address
Before buying real estate, consider renting for a year to get oriented. Be sure to research forms of ownership and property titling for the country you’re interested in. For example, buying property in some countries could mean purchasing shares in a corporation. If you plan to sell the property later on, consider the rules and regulations that apply to selling. “Some countries restrict the transfer of cash or profits out of the country,” Rande notes.
You can find professionals through the American embassy or a nonprofit like American Citizens Abroad who can help with local real estate laws and rules on international currency transfers. Also, make sure to check the State Department website for visa and residency requirements. Finally, plan visits to your desired destination in different seasons to get a better sense of what you’ll experience when living there year-round.
You still have to file from foreign soil
Even if you’re no longer earning or living in the U.S., as a U.S. citizen you’re still required to file an annual tax return. No matter where you live, you’ll still owe taxes on your worldwide income—including traditional 401(k) and IRA withdrawals, taxable pensions, and other taxable income, no matter the source. This extends to up to 85% of your Social Security benefits, depending on your income level. Also, if you have income sourced from your home state—from a business or rental property, for example—you may owe state taxes.
With the passage of the 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, filing from overseas has gotten more complex, so consult a tax expert to make sure you’re complying with the latest rules.
Avoid being taxed twice
You’ll likely have to file a tax return in your country of residence as well. How can you avoid being taxed twice? The U.S. has treaties with more than 65 countries that help you avoid double taxation in the U.S. and in your home overseas. Expats can get a foreign tax credit on their U.S. return for taxes paid elsewhere.
In fact, if you earn money in the country where you have chosen to reside, you could benefit from the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, which allows expats to exclude up to $100,800 of foreign earnings from their total yearly income.
Manage your Medicare benefits
Retirees living abroad are not eligible for Medicare. But what if you visit the U.S. or decide to return permanently, as many retired expats eventually do?
To avoid a break in your eligibility (and the higher fees and penalties that come with re-enrollment), you might want to keep paying premiums for Medicare Part B, which includes all outpatient services. Then when you move back, you’ll also still be eligible for Medicare Part A, which includes hospital coverage.
Get health care coverage overseas
Health care options are often cheaper abroad—indeed, so affordable that some expats opt to simply pay out of pocket. Still, you might want to purchase an international health plan through an American insurer or a private company with a large global network.
You can also consider a group plan through an organization like the Association of Americans Resident Overseas or purchase an HMO-like plan through foreign hospitals. “This can be a good option, since many countries have American-trained doctors practicing in their hospitals,” says Rande.
Set up your banking with care
The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010 requires foreign banks to report all accounts held by U.S. citizens with balances of $10,000 or more to the federal government. This criterion has made banking and obtaining a foreign credit card more difficult. In fact, some foreign banks avoid doing business with Americans. Your best bet is to consider a foreign-based branch of a U.S. bank.
And remember to do some research in advance to help protect your money: “When you bank with foreign institutions, there are no SEC rules or FDIC insurance to safeguard your dollars,” Rande warns. There may be international equivalents, but don’t assume that the protections are the same.
Prepare to adjust your estate plan
This may come as a surprise, but your estate plan and other documents (wills, powers of attorney, health care directives) may not be valid abroad. “Even when you move to another state within the U.S., you should always have your estate plan reviewed by an attorney in that state,” Rande says. This step is even more critical when you move overseas. The U.S. Consulate, as well as American Citizens Abroad, can provide lists of local attorneys who can help. Also, make sure your family members are aware of any changes you make.
How will your income translate into local currency?
Most of your retirement income will likely be in dollars that are then converted to local currency, so you’ll be more vulnerable to fluctuations in currency markets. “It’s crucial to take a good look at your retirement portfolio and revisit your income strategy before you retire abroad,” says Rande. Your retirement “paycheck” may look ample while the dollar is strong, but could you weather a prolonged period of its weakness?