Cohabitant vs. Roommate – Why Terminology Matters

Updated: February 11, 2021

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    Are you up for a security clearance? Do you have to undergo a background investigation to get your clearance? If you have never done this before, the level of detail and information required may surprise you at first. You’ll be asked to go back at least five years into the past and provide information on all addresses where you’ve lived, jobs worked, roommates or cohabitants you may have shared a living space with, etc.

    "Cohabitant" vs. "Roommate" - Why Terminology MattersAnd immediately, someone who has read the line above wants to know (and rightfully so) what the difference is between a roomie and a cohabitant.

    The security clearance process can feel quite intimidating for some and getting these answers right is important. But the good news is, as we’ll explore below, an honest mistake in such details can require further (non-punitive) development but that is NOT the end of the world where your clearance is concerned.

    The SF 86 Warning

    When you fill out Standard Form 86, the questionnaire you must fill out as part of a security clearance background investigation, you are greeted with a big warning at the top of the form which includes the following:

    “The U.S. Criminal Code (title 18, section 1001) provides that knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines and/or up to five (5) years imprisonment.”

    Furthermore, the warning informs the applicant that federal agencies don’t hire (or fire) people who have “materially and deliberately falsified these forms” and any such entries are considered ”…a part of the permanent record for future placements”. The warning also includes a notice that applicants are provided an opportunity to explain things on the form that may not be clear or require further development.

    What If You Make A Mistake On SF 86?

    With that warning, it’s human nature to get nervous about the lengthy details and level of information you are providing to the background investigator. What if you make an honest mistake? What if you don’t fully understand what’s being asked of you and you give a “wrong” answer?

    The good news is that the people responsible for running your background investigation ahead of a security clearance have seen all this before and are generally able to recognize the signs of deception as opposed to a lack of clarity in details that are not deliberate. The same is true of people who genuinely cannot remember or have a hard time accessing certain details required of the background check.

    So when you begin your form-filling out process, it won’t come as any surprise to the people receiving your Standard Form 86 if you get confused over a relatively minor and simple issue as knowing what the difference is between a roommate and a cohabitant.

    But fortunately, this is one detail that is easier to understand than you might think, though certain nuances of these definitions may in some cases make the issue a bit trickier than usual. We’ll discuss that below.


    What Is The Difference Between A Cohabitant And A Roommate?

    Believe it or not, there are actual legal definitions that can apply with one or both of these. A “cohabitant” as defined in a legal sense carries the following as described by the official site of Cornell Law School:

    “Living together in the same residence, either as spouses or unmarried partners. Cohabitation is often a reason for termination of alimony, on the assumption that a person cohabiting with another no longer needs the support of a former spouse.”

    That may or may not specifically inform the doctrines used to review the information you submit in SF 86 but it’s a very good place to begin understanding how a cohabitant is interpreted by your background investigator.

    A legal definition of “roommate” includes the following as found on LawDepot.com:

    “Roommates are two or more people who share a short-term residential dwelling and are not involved in a romantic relationship. Roommates can be single or involved in other relationships that are independent from the roommate dynamic.”

    As a general rule, if you are not romantically involved, you may be technically considered to be roommates for the purposes of a background investigation related to security clearances. But why does it matter which is which?

    Why Roommate Versus Cohabitant Matters For Your Security Clearance Process

    Part of the motivation for an investigation in the first place is to establish that the applicant is of “good moral character” (whatever that might mean) but also to insure that the applicant is not vulnerable to foreign influences who may try to entice someone with a clearance into accepting money, services, bribes, etc.

    It’s also to establish that the applicant doesn’t have personal situations that could be used by an enemy power as leverage to get something in exchange for keeping a secret, not making information public or available to loved ones or supervisors, etc.

    In short, if you can be pressured to give up classified information, you represent a vulnerability and should not be issued a clearance.

    When you are asked about your living situations on SF 86 and in interviews, part of the motivations to get this data? Investigating the other people in your life to see whether they have any leverage on you. That’s a gross oversimplification to be sure, but it’s used here as a quick example to help you understand.

    The roommate situation implies some form of financial dependency between all parties, but does not necessarily mean there’s a potential problem; the investigator basically wants to make sure your roommate situation is typical and doesn’t have deeper implications.

    On Cohabitation

    In terms of cohabitation, the significant other may or may not be a person of interest in your background check. Americans who cohabitate with fellow American citizens likely have the least to worry about in this area–remember that cohabitation implies some form of relationship.

    This gets more complicated with situations that involve foreign nationals, and more complex when those people are from countries the United States currently has some form of adversarial relationship with. If you find yourself fitting that category in any way, the best thing you can do is to be as forthcoming and honest in the screening process as possible.

    It’s normal to worry about the outcome in situations like these, but generally speaking, those who don’t have anything to hide who are honest about their circumstances have less to worry about than those who have nothing to hide, but lie or omit pertinent details because they are scared.

    Remember that all investigations are carried out on a case-by-case basis, which means that there’s no boilerplate answers for you to give on SF 86 or in an interview. Your specific circumstances will be reviewed on their own merit and as mentioned above all applicants are technically provided the opportunity under the rules of the investigative process to clarify statements that may need more information, explanation, etc.

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    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News


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