Declaratory Judgments: The Secret Weapon for Obtaining Dual Citizenship

Posted by Brian Waller | Mar 28, 2023

Some countries permit certain descendants of those that emigrated from their country to obtain citizenship based on their parents' or grandparents' ties to that country. The country that I am most familiar with that allows dual citizenship is Italy. 

I am not an immigration attorney and I know very little about actually obtaining dual citizenship jure sanguinis (Italian for 'by descent'). There are lots of resources you can find on this topic through a Google search. I do know that to successfully become a dual citizen of Italy, you first need to do some digging. You need to be able to establish a clear Italian lineage, which is where many people run into issues. 

The root of some of these issues can be seen in Godfather II when young Vito Andolini lands at Ellis Island. He speaks no English, so someone reads the identification around his neck and his name becomes Vito Corleone (Corleone is the name of the town Vito left in Sicily, and the immigration official wrote that down as his name). If this happened to one of your ancestors, now you have a problem because there is no easy way to show that Vito Andolini is the same person as Vito Corleone. 

This is just one example, but there are countless ways that discrepancies can get created. Some immigrants simplified or "Americanized" their names when they arrived in the US. "Paolo" may have been called "Paul", and eventually just used Paul as his name. "Pasqualina's" driver's license and death certificate may say Patty because that was how she was commonly known by her friends and family. Many times, this discrepancy has no real consequence. When obtaining dual citizenship, however, you need to be able to prove to the Italian government that Paolo is really Paul or Pasqualina is really Patty. 

How do you correct historical documents for dual citizenship purposes?

First of all, the process is not simple. If the person with the discrepancy is still living, they may be able to have the documents corrected, but that depends on the type of document and the agency that is responsible for issuing that document. If the person is deceased, however, prepare to jump through some hoops.

First, and most importantly, gather as much documentation as you can to demonstrate that Paolo and Paul are one and the same. There are obvious records that will help with this, like birth certificates, baptismal certificates, driver's licenses, passports, and death certificates. With more digging, you can likely find census information, voter registrations, ship manifests, and even obituaries. You need to be able to tell a compelling story through the documents that the multiple names all refer to one individual. 

In Massachusetts, the next step is to obtain a declaratory judgment from a court that says your ancestor's documents may not align exactly, but they all refer to the same person. The Superior Court and the Probate and Family Court (as well as the Land Court) have jurisdiction over the issue of declaratory judgments in Massachusetts. To obtain the declaratory judgment, you will need to file a petition with the court that explains the relationship of the documents to one individual, ideally in a way that a judge can follow. The defendant in these cases is the Town Clerk in the city or town that issued the erroneous document. This can be more than one town, and you can typically include multiple defendants as part of the same petition. 

The court will schedule a hearing and a representative from the town (usually an attorney on behalf of the town) will state whether or not they oppose the issuance of a declaratory judgment. From here, sometimes there may be a subsequent hearing, or the judge may issue the declaratory judgment exactly as you requested. In some cases, a hearing may not even be necessary if the city or town has no objection and notifies the court of that in writing. These always seem to be a little different depending on the county and depending on the judge. If there are subsequent hearings in these cases, it is most often for logistical reasons or some type of deficiency in the petition, like a missing document. 

These types of declaratory judgments are somewhat rare, so many court clerks don't understand what you are trying to file. Some clerks may tell you you need to go to a different court or to the Town Hall. You need to be persistent and you may need to speak with multiple clerks to find someone that can help you. It is never easy and there are lots of places where things can get tied up or lost along the way. 

I am a big do-it-yourselfer and I often tell potential clients they can file something on their own if an attorney isn't going to add any value to the process, or if they want to invest the time to figure something out. This isn't one of those, though. Obtaining a declaratory judgment is different than other matters in the probate courts and there are a host of ways that things can go wrong. If you are persistent and time isn't a factor, it might be worth giving it a shot.

If you want legal assistance with obtaining a declaratory judgment, please use this link to schedule a free consultation. We are one of the few firms (that I am aware of) that handle these and understand the process. If you have done the legwork and gathered all of the documents, we should be able to help you get things over the finish line. 

About the Author

Brian Waller

Founder and Principal Attorney

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