I Owe Back Taxes: Can I Still Apply for U.S. Citizenship?

Complying with IRS requirements and showing good moral character are crucial to becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

Let's say you have been a green card holder for many years, and always meant to apply for U.S. citizenship, but got too busy with work, family and the like. Then you lose your job and become unable to afford your U.S. income taxes, which leads you to not file the required tax returns at all. Or maybe you spent some months living overseas, had no job in the United States, only received U.S. income from interest on savings or investments, and didn't realize that that this money counted toward your U.S. tax obligations (and that your worldwide income needed to be reported to the IRS).

Will failure to pay U.S. taxes bar you from applying for naturalized U.S. citizenship? That's what this article will discuss, namely:

  • why nonpayment of taxes raises good moral character concerns
  • the possibility that you didn't owe taxes, and
  • how to potentially cure the issue by paying back taxes and penalties.

Nonpayment of Taxes Raises "Good Moral Character" Concerns With Regard to Citizenship Eligibility

One of the important requirements for U.S. citizenship is that the applicant show "good moral character." This doesn't mean showing that you're better than the average person, but it does involve showing that you have behaved well, including paying your taxes.

The naturalization application Form N-400 issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) specifically asks about whether you have paid the taxes that you owe, including any federal, state, and local obligations. (See When Visa or Green Card Holders Must Pay Taxes if in doubt about your obligation.)

However, missing a tax payment doesn't mean you are forever barred from U.S. citizenship. Nonpayment is a discretionary concern, which the officer will weigh into the decision of whether you have shown good moral character. The important thing now is that you do everything possible to evaluate and fix the situation, as described next.

Make Sure You Actually Owed Taxes

If your household income was low enough, it's possible that you didn't owe taxes at all for some years. With regard to federal taxes, this IRS page can help: Do I Need to File a Tax Return?. The range is usually between $14,000 and $25,000 depending on your age, whether you are filing singly or jointly, and so on.

Of course, you'll need to make sure to follow the exact applicable minimum for any years you failed to file. The numbers can change year by year, based on inflation.

How to Remedy Past Nonpayment of U.S. Taxes

In order to deal with this situation, you will most likely need to file your tax returns and including payments for the basic amount and any applicable penalties. Or, if you still can't afford the full tax bill, you might be able to work out a payment plan with the IRS and state or local taxing authorities.

Evidence that the applicant is complying with such a payment plan has, in some cases, been accepted by USCIS as sufficient proof of good moral character.

Once you've taken care of things, be sure to get copies of your IRS tax transcripts for the relevant years, and provide these to USCIS with your N-400 or at the interview. Beyond the basic transcript, you might want to get a "tax account transcript," which helps show that you actually paid any outstanding debts shown on the "tax return transcript."

Get Professional Help

Though not hopeless, this is a tricky situation. Your best bet is to get expert help from both a tax professional and an immigration attorney.

The immigration attorney, for example, can help you by writing a persuasive letter to accompany your N-400 application, explaining why your failure to pay taxes does not indicate a lack of good moral character. The attorney can also help you collect and present other evidence of your good moral character, for example by presenting letters and documents showing your community involvement, dedication to family, participation in religious worship activities, and so forth.

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