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Common Mistakes in Completing the SF-86 for Security Clearance

Ask anyone who has obtained security clearance in the past six or so years, and they are likely to tell you that completing Standard Form 86 is a monumental task.

To make matters worse, many security clearance applications are riddled with common mistakes that only lead to the disappointment of denial.

If your application contains one or more of these common errors, that can interfere with your livelihood, since many job opportunities are contingent upon your ability to obtain clearance.

The SF-86 is used by the government to conduct background investigations, reinvestigations, and evaluations of people seeking national security positions and those already holding those positions, either as government employees, military personnel, or government contractors.

Knowing how to avoid some common mistakes will get you through the SF-86 process as quickly as possible.

Which Errors are Common on the SF-86?

Some of the most common rejections in the security clearance process are due to lies and omissions.

Applicants who do leave out information or offer misleading details usually do so on some of the simplest questions, according to Lockheed Martin, a national defense contractor whose employees often require clearance for their jobs.

1. Full name
As simple as it seems, there is a right and a wrong way to enter your full name on the SF-86 questionnaire. If your name contains initials, use them and enter “I/O” after the initials. If you have no middle name, you must enter “NMN.” If you have an initial only as your middle name, provide a comment explaining that fact.

2. Entering the date of birth incorrectly

Believe it or not, applicants often don’t follow directions when stating when they were born. The questionnaire asks for Month/Day/Year. Ensure your numbers are legible.

3. Entering place of birth incorrectly

The SF-86 asks for your City, County, State, and Country of birth. The Country entry box explicitly states that it is a required detail.

4. Not providing a list of other names used
If you have a maiden name, former name, alias, or nickname, provide that information on the SF-86.

5. Not providing appropriate document numbers or comments
If you’re a U.S. citizen who was born abroad, there are certain documents you must have, and those document numbers and dates the documents were completed must be provided. This goes for citizens born on military installations and U.S. citizens born outside the U.S.

6. Having a current foreign passport
You cannot obtain a security clearance if you have a current foreign passport. That passport must be invalidated by a local security officer.

7. Failing to provide residence information for the past 10 years
You must go back 10 years or to your 18th birthday and provide complete address information, as well as the timeframe during which you lived at each address. You also must provide a point of contact information for someone who knew you at any addresses you had in the past three years. That information must include the person’s full name, current address, telephone number, and relationship. If you can’t provide portions of this information, you must explain why or offer up the details of an alternative person who can vouch for you living at that location.

8. Lying or omitting information about illegal drug activity
You must include the number of times an illegal drug was used. If that number is unknown, you should provide an estimate. Keep in mind that marijuana use, while legal according to some states, is still illegal federally and should be mentioned on the SF-86.

9. Failing to properly address financial difficulties
Security clearance attorney Catie Young advises clients to pull their credit reports prior to completing the SF-86 so they can properly reference any delinquent debt that appears. Having financial problems leaves you open to blackmail, and investigators will want to know that you are making payments or otherwise making good on your financial obligations. You must provide information for each debt you have, as well as any bankruptcy filings.

10. Failing to divulge non-criminal court actions
Any civil court actions you’ve been involved in must be listed on the SF-86, and you must include the final result of the court action.

“It is so hard to mitigate an omission or lie later down the road,” Young says. “I always advise clients on the importance of being forthright, not rushing through the document, and seeking legal advice at the outset.”

Part of the application’s purpose is to determine an applicant’s honesty. Omitting or mischaracterizing information about your past could lead an investigator to believe that you are untrustworthy with important government information.

Young says the best course of action is to acknowledge the conduct, whatever it is, and mitigate that information with the help of an experienced security clearance attorney. There are numerous mitigating factors that are usually applicable. If the government discovers or believes that you intentionally omitted information on the SF-86, a personal conduct concern will arise, which is probably the most difficult concern to mitigate.

If you are applying for security clearance and would like assistance with the process, please contact our office to schedule an appointment.