• December 2010

Are You an Accidental American Citizen?

By Steve Trow
Attorney / Owner / Founder
Trow & Rahal, P.C.

Believe it or not, you could be an American citizen and not know it.

Perhaps you were born abroad to an American parent. Or you were told years ago that you lost American citizenship when you became a citizen of another country.

Or maybe your parent or grandparent was an American citizen and thinks he lost that citizenship before you were born. Unless he has a Certificate of Loss of Nationality issued by the U.S. Department of State, you should consider the possibility that you are an American citizen.

Here’s another possibility: If you lived in the United States with your parents when you were a child and held lawful permanent-resident (green card) status, but never applied for American citizenship, you may be an American citizen if one or both parents obtained American citizenship, without any further action by you or your parents.

What’s more: Your children and grandchildren may also be American citizens. Here’s why.

American citizenship can pass through several generations

A person can obtain American citizenship “accidentally” by birth in the United States, by birth abroad to an American citizen parent, or through the American naturalization of a non-citizen parent.

If the legal requirements are met, the person becomes an American citizen automatically, by operation of law, regardless of his or his parents’ intention. American citizenship can pass through several generations of children and grandchildren born outside the United States, without any of them being aware of it.

Identifying “accidental” citizens

Accidental American Citizens are interesting and challenging clients. The trick is first to spot them, and then carefully to guide them through the citizenship, tax, and reporting maze.

The first step in determining if an individual is an “accidental” American citizen is to ask:

  • Was he or she born in the United States?
  • If not, does he or she have a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent, living or dead, who was born in the United States, or who ever held American citizenship or American permanent-resident (green card) status?

If no to both questions, it is unlikely that the person is an American citizen. If yes to either question, the person may be an American citizen, even if the client believes he or she is not.

The second step in the analysis is more difficult. It may require tracing a family’s citizenship, residence, and employment back through time. U.S. citizenship law is complex and has changed many times over the past three generations.

Farewell, America?

Once obtained, U.S. citizenship is not easily lost. Terminating American citizenship requires a formal renunciation before an American consul, or the voluntary performance of an expatriating act with the specific intention of relinquishing American citizenship.

The person asserting loss of citizenship bears the burden of proof, and in most cases, there is a presumption of intent to retain citizenship rather than relinquish it. Since there is an “exit tax” on expatriates, careful tax planning is required before terminating American citizenship.


About Steve Trow

Steve Trow has 30 years of experience in U.S. immigration law. He is a frequent speaker on U.S. immigration and citizenship planning for high net worth clients. The articles in this series draw on presentations he has made at professional development seminars hosted by the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) and other organizations in New York, Washington, Miami, Toronto, Calgary, London, Zurich, Geneva, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands.

Learn more about Steve’s firm at www.trowrahal.com. Contact Steve directly at strow@trowrahal.com.