What Happens to an Immigration Petition If the Sponsor Dies?

If an immigrant's sponsor dies before the immigration process is finished, it's not necessarily the end of the case.

If you’re waiting to immigrate to the U.S. on the basis of a visa petition filed by a family member who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, that person’s death will certainly make the process more difficult. But unlike in past years, when the visa petition always died with the petitioner, you may still be able to get a U.S. green card. Your success depends on your relative’s status in the U.S., your relationship to him or her, where you currently live, and whether you have relatives in the United States who are willing to serve as financial sponsors for you.

Widow or Widower of a U.S. Citizen

If you were married to or the minor child of a U.S. citizen, you are in an especially good position to get a green card. Even if your U.S. citizen spouse died before filing the initial visa petition for you (on Form I-130) or before the petition was approved, you may be able to carry on and petition for yourself and your minor children.

You would file your visa petition on USCIS Form I-360. Unlike other family beneficiaries, you need not have an Affidavit of Support filed on your behalf.

There’s a deadline: You must file the petition no later than two years after the death of your U.S. citizen spouse. Also, remarrying before you are approved for your green card will destroy your right to it.

See How to File an I-360 "Special Immigrant" Green Card Petition.

Other Family Relations

The Family Sponsor Immigration Act, signed by President Obama in 2009, provides a potential remedy for spouses of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, unmarried sons and daughters of citizens, spouses and unmarried sons and daughter of green card holders, married sons and daughters of citizens, and brothers and sisters of citizens, in cases where the original petitioner has died.

The children of people on the above list may also be included, so long as they continue to meet the legal definition of "child" when the family’s priority date becomes current. (Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens don’t have to worry about priority dates, but preference relatives, who face annual limits on the numbers of visas allotted, must wait until a visa becomes available to them, based on their priority date – or the date their visa petition was first filed.)

If you fall into one of the above categories, and your petitioner dies, you may be able to apply for what’s called reinstatement of your visa petition on humanitarian grounds. However, you'll have to meet certain conditions, including that:

  • your Form I-130 has already been approved
  • you were living in the United States at the time the petitioner died and continue to reside there on the date USCIS makes a decision on your application, and
  • you find someone eligible and willing to act as your financial sponsor in place of your original petitioner (as described below).

As you can see, if you are living overseas at the time the petitioner dies, the petition will be revoked and you will not be able to go directly forward with an application for a green card. You can apply to USCIS for humanitarian reinstatement of the visa petition under old laws, but such a grant is completely discretionary. You're likely to face long delays. You’ll need a lawyer’s help to present compelling evidence of why your approval should be granted.

Who Can Serve as a Substitute Sponsor

Serving as a substitute sponsor is a primarily financial relationship. It involves filling out an Affidavit of Support on USCIS Form I-864. The Affidavit must indicate that the new sponsor is able to support the immigrants, as well as his or her own household, at a level that’s at or above 125% of the federal Poverty Guidelines. To see the latest guidelines, look at Form I-864P on the USCIS website.

In fact, by filing Form I-864, the substitute sponsor promises the U.S. government to pay back any need-based public assistance that the named immigrants receive for approximately the first ten years of their having a green card.

Some other eligibility requirements apply to the substitute sponsor as well. He or she must be a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident of at least 18 years of age who has a domicile in the United States. And the sponsor must be a relative of yours. Eligible relatives include your spouse, son or daughter (aged 18 or older), parent, mother-in-law, father-in-law, sibling, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, grandparent, or grandchild (age 18 or older).

Getting Legal Help

If your petitioner has died, your wisest course would be to consult with an experienced U.S. immigration attorney. The attorney can determine whether you are still eligible for a green card and guide you through the appropriate application process.

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