When it comes to navigating the issues faced by American citizens marrying foreign nationals — and determining where to live or retire after marriage — Michelle Soufan speaks from personal experience. Soufan, a CFP and senior client advisor with TFC Financial Management in Boston, not only has a number of clients who have faced these issues; she also married a French citizen this year.
Her first piece of advice to citizens desiring to marry a non-citizen is to be “open minded and patient” because their options may become quickly limited as they plan their nuptials. The second is to begin not by asking themselves where they would like to marry, but rather “where can we get married,” based on where the two people are located and their immigration status.
In the case of a citizen wishing to marry a “foreigner” in the U.S., many financial and legal hurdles, including plenty of paperwork, must be overcome before tying the knot legally.
In an interview, Soufan provided advice for dual nationals contemplating marriage and for advisors who by chance or design have clients facing those legal and financial hurdles.
Getting Married in the U.S.
If you are an American citizen considering marrying a non-citizen in the U.S., one of the options is to use a fiancée visa, Soufan says, which allows you to marry in the U.S. but under a strict time deadline of 90 days, which if you don’t meet, the non-citizen “has to leave.” The alternative for the non-citizen who perhaps isn’t looking to live in the U.S. permanently after the marriage would be to marry abroad, and then applying for a green card. That was the case with Soufan’s fiancée: they married in France and then her husband started the green card process. Her suggestion is to avoid marrying in the U.S. if the non-citizen travels to this country using only a visitor’s visa.
The green card process, which can eventually lead to U.S. citizenship, itself can be lengthy and intricate for both the sponsor (the U.S. citizen) and the beneficiary (the non-citizen). Both parties must prove that “your marriage is real,” so gathering and storing documentation early that “shows you’re a real couple” is essential to the process. Immigration officials will look for items such as leases if you live together, or life insurance policies, mail that includes the couple’s names, even photographs. “It feels very personal,” Soufan says, seeking records of phone calls between the two parties, “even texts!”
In addition, the petitioner (the citizen) must turn over financial records such as bank accounts and tax returns, since immigration is looking for proof that the petitioner has the financial resources to support the beneficiary (the non-citizen).
Immigration will also look at the beneficiary as well to determine his relationship to the U.S. Has he traveled here before? What is his employment and family status? Has he overstayed past visas? Finally, there’s an in-person interview and even a medical exam. “It’s an intricately involved process for both” members of the couple, Soufan says, and immigration “doesn’t kid around.”
While immigration issues in general have gained higher prominence since Donald Trump was elected president, the process above for gaining a green card (greatly simplified above) has not significantly changed since 2016. What has changed is that the wait time for getting a green card has increased due to a backlog of applications created by last year’s government shutdown. “The last I checked online,” says Soufan, the estimated wait time for a green card “is in the eight-to-11-month range,” compared to a more normal three-month wait. “And that’s just for the first phase of the green card,” she points out.