Naturalization Following the Passing of your U.S. citizen spouse: 3 versus 5 years

In the face of a terrible tragedy, foreign national spouses can face even more hardship after their U.S. citizen husband or wife passes. Typically, foreign nationals who are green card holders through their U.S. citizen spouse have the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship following a period of three years in the U.S. Unfortunately, the green card holding widows and widowers of U.S. citizens will face obstacles for future naturalization following the death of their spouse.

Immigration and Nationality Act

Under U.S. immigration law, permanent residents who have lived with their U.S. citizen spouses in the U.S. for at least three years may apply for U.S. citizenship at the end of three years. This allows spouses of U.S. citizens to apply for citizenship two years earlier than required for other permanent residents. Sadly, those individuals who have tragically lost their spouses before applying for or during their application for naturalization may not apply after three years of residence and instead wait the typically five years of residency. According the Immigration and Nationality Act:

A person is ineligible for naturalization as the spouse of a United States citizen under Section 319(a) of the Act if, before or after the filing of the application, the marital union ceases to exist due to death or divorce, or the citizen spouse has expatriated.

Under these restrictions, the surviving spouse may not apply for naturalization as a spouse of a U.S. citizen. Regardless if the application was submitted before the untimely passing of the U.S. citizen sponsor, the application for citizenship becomes invalid at the time death. As such, the INA clarifies that an applicant is ineligible to naturalize as the spouse of a U.S. citizen if their spouse passes away “any time prior to the applicant taking the Oath of Allegiance.” The only exception applies to certain widows or widowers of U.S. citizens who passed away during active-duty status in the U.S. armed forces.