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Back taxes, the law and moving from Green Card to US citizenship

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"I have lived in the U.S. for nine years. I have a green card that I received through the diversity visa lottery six years ago. I would like to apply for citizenship this year, but I’m wondering if I should just leave well enough alone and be happy enough with my green card.  I started paying taxes last year.  If I had to go back and re-file I would stuck owing a lot of money that right now I cannot afford.  How should I handle this with regards to citizenship?  And how will immigration really know that I didn’t file taxes?"

“Also, I am being sued by someone I was involved in an automobile accident with last year. I am counter-suing as the accident definitely wasn’t my fault, but I’m worried that this could be an issue with the citizenship application. Is this so?”

The lawsuit will not be an issue when it comes time to filing your naturalization case. However, your tax history will be.

It’s a fact of life here in the U.S. – if you’re earning income, you’ve got to pay taxes, especially if you wish to become an American citizen.

If you’re not prepared to regularize your tax history then you should not proceed with your naturalization application.   Candidates for naturalization have to demonstrate good moral character for the five year period preceding the application date (three years if the application is based on marriage to a U.S. citizen).

One of the ways that good moral character must be shown is compliance with U.S. tax regulations.

“An applicant who fails to file tax returns or pay his or her taxes may be precluded from establishing [good moral character],” the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) advises.

It’s not necessary for a naturalization candidate to have paid all taxes in full – what’s important is showing a good faith effort to do so. 

You say that cleaning up your tax history would cost you money, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) often works out payment plans tailored to individual needs. Such an arrangement would suffice when it comes to meeting the naturalization requirement.

“An applicant who did not originally file tax returns or did not pay the appropriate taxes may be able to establish [good moral character] by submitting a letter from the tax authority indicating that the applicant has filed the appropriate forms and returns; and the applicant has paid the required taxes, or has made arrangements for payment,” USCIS says.

The N-400 naturalization paperwork specifically asks if the applicant has complied with U.S. tax regulations.  Answering no would be a big mistake – lying on a government form is obviously not advisable.

“If the officer uncovers inconsistencies in facts submitted on the application for naturalization and material elements on the applicant’s tax return, such as marital status, number of children, and employment, the applicant may be precluded from establishing [good moral character] due to an attempt to defraud the IRS by avoiding taxes,” USCIS says.

It would be a good idea for you to start the New Year by consulting an accountant to devise a plan for paying any taxes you owe. If you do that, you can feel confident proceeding with your naturalization application.
Originally published in 2013.

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