Some time ago, I alluded in an article to the dangers of speculating on one’s SF-86. The issue has since continued to arise repeatedly in security clearance denial and revocation cases, such that I think it warrants further discussion.

But before diving into how speculation rears its head during the security clearance process, let’s take a look at what the SF-86 actually requires. If you read the document carefully, you’ll notice that the myriad questions are framed in either past or present tense: “In the last 7 years have you…” or, “Are you currently delinquent on any federal debt?”

The commonality among all these questions is that they are asking for information that is provable now. Your signed SF-86 is effectively a snapshot in time, and you can only be held legally liable for information that you knew – or, in some cases, should have reasonably known – when you clicked “certify” in the e-QIP system.

Given the severe potential penalties one can incur for falsifying the SF-86 or omitting material information, it’s certainly understandable that some nervous clearance applicants might want to be sure that every “I” is dotted and every “T” is crossed. But some with a tendency to over-volunteer information take it a step further, essentially guessing about facts and circumstances – present or future – which are either speculative or plain wrong. That’s where the background investigation process goes off the rails.

Here are a few examples of speculation that we’ve seen:

The dead relative windfall for a relative who isn’t dead

Applicant believes that s/he will receive an inheritance upon the passing of a relative who is a foreign citizen. Applicant’s relative is not yet deceased, but Applicant decides to nonetheless provide information about the inheritance on the SF-86, thereby needlessly creating a potential foreign influence situation that, when combined with a couple other facts, may warrant a preliminary security clearance denial that takes great time, expense, and stress to challenge.

Legal reality check

Unless the potential inheritance is locked up in something like an irrevocable trust (i.e. there is a legal guarantee that you’re getting the money or assets), a potential inheritance is just that: potential! You might fall out of favor with your relative; your relative could die broke (or with significantly less money than anticipated); or, your relative could simply decide to donate the funds to charity.

Going to Doctor Web MD  

Applicant believes that s/he has a certain mental health condition based upon self-help research on WebMD. Instead of consulting a medical professional, Applicant writes a rambling two paragraph entry on the SF-86 explaining the various signs and symptoms s/he experiences that leads him or her to believe that said medical condition exists in Applicant.

Legal reality check     

Unless you sign your name with an M.D. or Psy.D., don’t self-diagnose! You’re not doing yourself any favors by handing the government “exhibit A” of how you cannot follow the instructions on the SF-86 and thus ostensibly cannot be trusted to follow instructions regarding the protection of classified information.

If they speak english, they must be americans, right?

Applicant is unsure as to the legal status of his or her family members living in the United States. Scared to ask (for fear that the family members do not have legal status and will be reported to ICE if listed on the SF-86), Applicant disregards her knowledge of their valid foreign country passports and instead speculates that they are all U.S. citizens because they speak English and have lived in the United States for over a decade. The government subsequently finds out about Applicant’s relatives and Applicant is accused of intentionally falsifying his or her SF-86.

Legal reality check:    

I’ve never heard of a situation in which federal background investigators reported an applicant’s family members to ICE for lack of legal status. Even if this occurred with regularity, however, your duty is still to answer questions on the SF-86 honestly. There is no need to go out and interrogate every family member on their legal status, but not knowing and being willfully blind are two different things. You can’t claim good faith while ignoring objectively obvious information like the existence of foreign passports.

The point in all of this is that speculation does nothing besides cause security clearance applicants needless headaches. When answering questions on the SF-86 or during the background investigation process, ask yourself whether your answer is both responsive to the question and conceivably provable now. When in doubt, consider seeking legal counsel.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at