As an attorney, few legal specialties sound less appealing than divorce and family law. That’s not because I shy away from conflict; it’s because I learned long ago that arguing with irrational people is pointless. When it comes to domestic disputes, rational thinking seems like it’s often the first character trait to proverbially exit the building.

It is perhaps no surprise then that the resultant blow-out arguments can result in permanent rifts between family members. I see it in my own law practice all the time, albeit in the unusual context of security clearance applicants agonizing over how – and if – to list an estranged relative on the SF-86.

Some of that agonizing is easy to assuage. Absent unusual circumstances, and the notable exception of ex-spouses, government background investigators don’t contact relatives for interviews or anything else. But that doesn’t change the fact that security clearance applicants are still required to list contact information and biographical data for their immediate relatives on the SF-86. I’ve fielded plenty of questions over the years about precisely how one does that when the requested information is not known and cannot reasonably be obtained.

Easy Answer to the Question

It’s actually an easily answered question. “Unknown” – if that’s the truth – is an acceptable response for an estranged relative’s biographical data or contact information. No one is expecting a clearance applicant to track down someone they haven’t spoken with in twenty years to ask for their current address, just like no one is expecting every clearance applicant to hail from a Norman Rockwell-style family.

Nonetheless, some clearance applicants apparently feel compelled to list something for their estranged family member’s contact information and biographical details, even if it’s made-up whole cloth. Others seem to think that not listing a certain estranged relative – most commonly, one who is incarcerated – will bode better for their prospects of obtaining the clearance. Both are eminently bad ideas.

The fact is that an honest “unknown” coupled with a simple and honest explanation upon request is typically the end of the inquiry. Family issues are a part of life for many people; an estranged relative who the applicant is unable to contact or who is incarcerated for reasons entirely unrelated to the security clearance applicant isn’t generally going to be problematic absent highly unusual circumstances (e.g. the offense was related to national security or the applicant hails from a ‘crime family’).

On the other hand, inventing contact information and biographical data or simply omitting a relative entirely raises questions about integrity that may prove fatal to a security clearance applicant’s chances of success. Don’t give into those temptations.


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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Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials, revocations, and the security clearance application process. He is a former investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management). For more information, please visit Readers will also find a low-cost, self-help option for obtaining copies of their security clearance background investigations and DISS/Scattered Castles records at