How do you know which relatives you should list on the SF-86? If the form specifically asks for their information, it’s clear. If the relationships is more ambiguous – legally, it’s a little murkier.

This week on the ClearanceJobs Blog, one user had one such question about listing his father’s deceased spouse on his paperwork for a Public Trust. The original poster wrote:

My father had a first marriage with a woman who is now deceased. I never had any interaction with her in my entire life. I don’t believe she qualifies as my stepmother. Do I have to list her for public trust paperwork?

This is a valid question and can be looked at a number of ways. Two questions should guide your thoughts on this: What does the SF-86 or SF-85 literally ask? And what’s the cost/benefit of not including a relative of possible interest?

Does the Form ask specifically about this person?

These are the family members specifically addressed on the SF-86 (living or deceased):

  • Mother
  • Father
  • Stepmother
  • Stepfather
  • Foster parent
  • Child (including adopted/foster)
  • Stepchild
  • Brother
  • Sister
  • Stepbrother
  • Stepsister
  • Half-brother
  • Half-sister
  • Father-in-law
  • Mother-in-law
  • Guardian

The SF-86 asks specifically about step parents, so list them. Even if they were only married to your parent for a short time, even if it was 20 years ago, even if you never see them anymore or they’ve passed away, the form is asking you to list them, so do it.

But after another user replied giving a similar explanation, the original user further clarified that:

“…is she really considered my step mother? My understanding is that she’d only be considered my step mother if my father married her after I was born and she is not my biological mother.”

Depending on which legal dictionary you consult, the definition of a “step parent” may or may not include a person who was married to a parent prior to a child’s birth. Likewise, you may question if your parent’s spouse is technically a “step parent” if the parent married them after you’d already reached adulthood and never acted in loco parentis, or in the place of a parent. Under the law, they are a step parent, so be sure to list them.

What’s the down side to just listing them?

If your dad’s former wife used to work for the KGB, I can see where you’d want to avoid listing them. But since that’s probably not the case, if you’re in doubt, ask your FSO or just list them. In very few cases will an obscure relative have any bearing over your clearance. The only thing it’s likely to cost you is another 10 minutes filling out your form. But forgetting or or omitting relatives can cause delays in processing your clearance – which would you prefer?


Much about the clearance process resembles the Pirate’s Code: “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” This case-by-case system is meant to consider the whole person, increase process security, and allow the lowest-risk/highest-need candidates to complete the process. However, it also creates a  lot of questions for applicants. For this reason, ClearanceJobs maintains – a forum where clearance seekers can ask the cleared community for advice on their specific security concerns. Ask CJ explores questions posed  on the ClearanceJobs Blog forum

If you have a tough security clearance question, you can post your questions or concerns on


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Caroline's background is in public policy, non-profit fundraising, and - oddly enough - park rangering. Though she once dreamed of serving America secretly in the CIA, she's grateful she's gotten to serve America publicly - both through the National Park Service and right here at ClearanceJobs.