“Cohabitant” vs. “Roommate”: Why Terminology Matters

Security Clearance

(Photo Credit: Sarah Sharp form Unsplash)

Just like determining when a foreign contact becomes “close and/or continuing” – and thus reportable on the SF-86 form – assessing whether someone you live with is a cohabitant or a roommate isn’t always easy.

Question 17.3 of the 2016 SF-86 form asks the question this way:

Do you presently reside with a person, other than a spouse or legally recognized civil union/domestic partner, with whom you share bonds of affection, obligation, or other commitment, as opposed to a person with whom you live for reasons of convenience (e.g. a roommate)?

This is similar to how a foreign contact is deemed “close” in the security clearance context. The threshold is generally that the clearance holder or applicant is bound to the foreign national by affection, obligation, or influence.

If you’re in an intimate relationship with the person you live with, that’s clear cohabitation and no further inquiry is needed. But what about a situation where you’re bound by obligation – say, a legal contract – to sub-lease from your roommate? Or what about a situation I saw recently: a young woman who was living rent-free in the home of an elderly woman in exchange for help around the house?

These situations can get complicated, so perhaps the best way of assessing any scenario is to approach it with this question in mind: What is the government’s motivation for inquiring?

Here, the government’s motivation is seemingly to determine whether someone you live with can exert influence over your behavior, whether financially, emotionally, or otherwise, thereby creating a potential security risk.

The roommate you found online and who you share polite conversation with in passing isn’t likely to reach that level. But if you depend on that person (or vice versa) for more than just paying their portion of the rent and utilities on time, that’s when I advise clients that they’re potentially looking at a cohabitant situation.

The good news is that the cohabitant-roommate distinction is rarely an issue of adjudicative concern outside a handful of situations involving the individual in question. These include: an extensive history of, or currently ongoing, criminal behavior or associations; foreign citizenship; current or former service to a foreign government; or if characterization of the true nature of the relationship could create a blackmail concern.

Nonetheless, candor about the nature and extent of any potential cohabitation is critical from an adjudicative perspective. Remember that you’re certifying this information as accurate under criminal penalty. When in doubt, seek out advice in writing from either a government official authorized to give it or an experienced attorney.

 

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

Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit www.bigleylaw.com