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Understanding the Financial Obligation to Sponsoring a Spouse for a Green Card
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Posted On: January 10, 2012

The Affidavit of Support is a contract with the federal government to reimburse the government for any means-tested public benefits that the immigrant receives in the 10 years after the immigrant is awarded their green card (becomes a permanent resident).  The affidavit of support must be filed with immigration for the permanent residency application to be approved.  If the green card case is not approved, the active support is not binding on whoever signed it.  A U.S. citizen spouse or Lawful Permanent Resident spouse must make a certain income minimum on  a yearly basis to sponsor the immigrant and must produce proof of ongoing employment or sufficient assets as well as have filed the last three years of tax returns and be willing to produce at least the latest tax return to immigration.

The U.S. citizen sponsor is responsible for paying back the government if the immigrant ever applies for and receives public assistance currently in the form of AFDC (cash aid), and non-emergency Medicare, among others.  Means tested public benefits do not include social security, disability, or unemployment wages earned by the immigrant. The U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident’s obligation to reimburse the Federal governments under the affidavit of support does not end if the couple legally separates or divorces..   The U.S. citizen sponsor is still on the proverbial hook for the remainder of the ten years. The only ways to avoid this obligation are:

  1.  Naturalization of the immigrant (immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen; the earliest the immigrant becomes eligible for citizenship is 3 years after permanent residency grant, if still living in marital union with their spouse);
  2. The immigrant has worked or is credited with forty (40) qualifying quarters under social security laws;
  3. The immigrant permanently departs the U.S.; or
  4. The immigrant dies.  

If the sponsor refuses to reimburse, a federal, state, local, or private agency can seek reimbursement from or file suit against the sponsor for all means-tested benefits provided to the immigrant.    
  • Marital and prenuptial agreements may be a useful tool for U.S. citizen spouse sponsors to hold the immigrant responsible for any potential reimbursement scenario.  The immigrant may choose in the agreement to waive a right to alimony, property, a spouse’s savings or 401k or other affirmative benefit in exchange for the risk of the Affidavit of Support creates for the sponsor if the immigrant ever falls on hard times in the future. 
  • The immigrant may also choose to set up a trust or separate account for use by the U.S. sponsoring spouse and pay into it now, while the immigrant is working and has the financial means to fund it, in exchange for the sponsoring spouse assuming the Affidavit of Support risk. Many couples do not involve agreements at all, believing the potentiality of the immigrant falling on public assistance is so remote that the risk is minimal. 

U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse petitioners can be worried about this financial obligation being used against them in family court proceedings if the marriage ever crumbles. T

he immigrant will not get far in introducing the Affidavit of Support as proof of the U.S. citizen spouse’s obligation to provide alimony or other means of support in a family dissolution or alimony proceeding or in settlement negotiations if the marriage later breaks down. The contract is limited to reimbursement of means tested public benefits only and cannot force a family court to order support.   Alimony and divorce agreements are the purview of State family courts, not federal immigration law.
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Attorney Heather L. Poole practices exclusively in the area of U.S. family-based immigration law and citizenship law. Heather is a nationally-published immigration author, frequent lecturer on immigration issues, and member & officer of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Southern California Chapter. For more information about Heather and the services offered, visit


Anonymous May 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Does this apply to wavier 601 also? I have cancer and cannot work. My illegal spouse is our family’s only source of income.

Atty Heather June 11, 2012 at 5:36 pm

A petitioner who is sponsoring a relative for a green card has to show they have the minimum income threshold or assets required to support the immigrant. This has nothing to do with whether the immigrant needs a I-601 waiver. The Affidavit of Support financial requirement must be met before the green card can be issued.

If the Petitioner does not make the minimum income level required, the Petitioner may be able to qualify through showing their assets or by using a joint financial sponsor if that person has the minimum income requirements and has filed taxes. Consult with a competent immigration attorney about your options.

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