I've been representing clients in lawsuits to enforce the USCIS Form I-864, Affidavit of Support…
Yes – in most states the USCIS Form I-864, Affidavit of Support can be enforced in a divorce case. A family law court has the authority to enforce the I-864 either (1) as a breach of contract claim or (2) through spousal maintenance (also called alimony). But as discussed below, divorce court is not necessarily the best way to enforce the Form I-864, and you may want to consider using a federal lawsuit instead.
Do family law courts have the power to enforce the Form I-864, Affidavit of Support?
The Form I-864 is created by federal immigration law. See 8 U.S.C. 1183a. If you ask a family law attorney if the Form I-864 can be enforced, something you will often hear is, “this is a federal law issue that needs to be enforced in federal court.” That is fundamentally incorrect for two reasons.
First, the Form I-864 is a contract. Specifically, it is a contract between the Affidavit of Support sponsor and the United States government. The green card holder sponsored by the immigrant is a “third-party beneficairy” to the contract, and has the legal ability to enforce it. But again, at the end of the day the Form I-864 is a contract. State courts – including family law courts – deal with contracts all the time. So it’s simply incorrect to say that only federal courts can enforce the Form I-864.
Second, yes, it is true that the federal statute creates what is called a “private right of action.” The Immigration and Nationality At, at 8 U.S.C. 1183a(e)(1), specifically says that a green card holder can enforce her rights under the Form I-864. But this does not make the issue exclusively for federal courts. In the U.S. legal system, a state court of general jurisdiction can enforce a federal statute, unless the statute says that only federal courts may hear such claims. In the case of the Form I-864, there is nothing in the federal statute that reserves jurisdiction exclusively for federal courts.
For these two reasons, state courts do indeed have the authority to enforce the Affidavit of Support. And family law courts – even though they are sometimes treated as their own type of court – are simply a division of a state’s general court. For that reason, they have the authority to enforce the Form I-864 for the same reasons that a state’s general court has authority to enforce the I-864.
How does the Form I-864 get enforced in divorce cases?
We have established that a family law court has the power to enforce the Form I-864. Now we need to look at the details of how exactly a divorce court enforces the Form Affidavit of Support. There are basically two different procedures that could be used.
(1) Enforcing the Form I-864 through an alimony (maintenance) order.
There is case law in some states that the Form I-864 can be enforced through an alimony order, also called spousal maintenance in some states. The states that take this approach include the following:
To achieve these results, remember that the family law judge is going to be viewing the I-864 through the lens of a state’s alimony/maintenance rules.
What’s the significance of that? Well, alimony tends to be based on a multitude of factors, like duration of the marriage, earning power of the parties, and so forth. The Affidavit of Support is very clear about the financial support due to a green card holder: her income has to be maintained at 125 percent of the poverty line. The Form I-864 is also clear about long the support obligation lasts (the five Terminating Events).
But, the clarity of the Form I-864 becomes muddier once a state’s maintenance statute gets involved. Basically, cases tend to go sideways in two ways from the perspective of the sponsored green car holder.
First, family courts may limit the amount of alimony given to an Affidavit of Support beneficiary. Under the terms of the Form I-864, the green card holder is entitled to be supported at an income level equal to 125% of the poverty line. That’s roughly $1,400/month for one person. So if the immigrant is unemployed, she is entitled to the $1,400 per month, period. But a family law judge may consider other factors under an alimony statute, and decide to award a lower amount (for example, based on the perceived earning power of the immigrant).
Second, a divorce court may limit the duration of alimony ordered for an I-864 beneficiary. Again, under the federal statute, the Form I-864 remains enforceable until the five Terminating Events as defined in the contract. But under the law in most states, long-term alimony is disfavored. For that reason, a family court judge may consider state law factors and order alimony for a specific period of time that is shorter than the enforcement period of the Form I-864 contract. Put differently, the family law court may order the sponsor to comply with his support obligation for a shorter period of time than a federal court would.
Sometimes these problems – too little alimony, or too short of a duration of support – can be fixed by an appeals court. Here is a recent example of that happening in Illinois. But once the trial court has entered a bad enforcement order, the green card holder has already lost in a major sense. Even if the order is fixed on appeal, that means lost time and resources to fix the mistake.
(2) Enforcing the Form I-864 as a contract in divorce court.
Another option for enforcing the Form I-864 in a divorce court is to treat it as a separate issue from alimony altogether. Remember that most family law courts are simply a division of a state’s court of general jurisdiction. That means that they have the authority to potentially hear any legal dispute that can be considered by the state court generally. Procedural rules of permissive joinder govern whether a party can bring an additional legal claim into a given lawsuit. As a general matter, such claim can be allowed if the claim involves the same parties, and similar facts to the claim already at issue.
The Affidavit of Support presents a strong case for permissible joinder. Two spouses are already in Court. The facts of primary relevance to the Affidavit of Support claim is the immigrant’s income history since this will determine what she can recover under the contract. But those facts about her income will already be at issue before the family law court. Little additional information is needed for the family law court to assess her claims under the Affidavit of Support. The additional facts relate primarily to whether the U.S. spouse signed the Form I-864, but this is rarely a contested fact, since the sponsor generally cannot deny that the I-864 was signed.
Presenting the Form I-864 to the family law court as a breach of contract claim, joined to the existing divorce matter, can potentially sidestep the challenges discussed above with respect to alimony. Viewed as a contract claim, and not as an alimony award, the multi-factor considerations governing alimony do not come into play, and neither the amount nor duration of an award should be limited.
Conclusion: Yes, you can enforce the I-864 in a divorce case.
The bottom line is that you probably can enforce the I-864 in a divorce proceeding. Whether that is a better strategic option than asserting the claim in federal court is a different matter. If you want individualized advice about your Affidavit of Support enforcement matter, contact us for a free case assessment. Family law attorneys are also welcome to request a case consultation at no cost. If you have general questions, feel free to drop them in the comments here.