What Happens If You Lie Under Oath?

You might state something under oath without even realizing you've done so.
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If you’re like most people, you might think that the issue of lying under oath involves only the most obvious example -- you take the witness stand at a trial and you solemnly swear to tell the truth. Then, for one reason or another, something entirely different comes out of your mouth. In fact, you probably make statements under oath a lot more frequently than you realize, and if you lie, it’s perjury.

Statements Made Under Oath

When you fill out an application for a driver’s license or for credit, you typically supply information under oath. You do the same when you complete and sign your tax return. If you’re ever involved in a civil lawsuit, such as a divorce, you’ll have to submit multiple documents to the court, all of them under penalty of perjury -- you’re presenting facts and information to the court upon which the judge will base a ruling. Be alert for certain phrases when you sign anything. There may be a statement to the effect that you’re declaring under penalty of perjury that the information you’re submitting is true and correct. This wording or something similar generally appears right above or below the signature line of whatever document you’re dealing with.

Requirements of Perjury

Perjury requires that the lie you’ve told is “material.” This means that it has a direct effect on the outcome of the matter you’ve lied about. If you sign a tax return that doesn’t report all your income, it’s perjury because the lie by omission directly affects what you owe in taxes. If you give false testimony at a trial, your statement must directly relate to the issue being tried. If you say that you lived in Oregon but you never actually set foot in the state, this would be perjury only if the issue of your presence there has some bearing on the case, such as if the crime you’re testifying about was committed there and you’re claiming to have witnessed it. You must also have knowledge that what you’re saying is untrue and, of course, you must make the statement under oath, attesting that it is true.

Possible Defenses

If you make a statement that isn’t honest, it’s possible to raise certain defenses if you’re subsequently charged with perjury. You might be able to take back or recant your statement, but time is typically of the essence -- you generally can’t recant years later if you’ve realized you’re in trouble because of what you said. You can try to convince the court that you didn’t lie -- you just didn’t understand the question being posed to you. Because perjury requires a willful untruth, an honest error or confusion can often be raised as a defense.

Penalties for Lying Under Oath

In some states, penalties for perjury can depend on the sentiments of the judge and the severity of what happened because of the lie. For example, if an innocent defendant was convicted and sent to prison because of your misstatement, you might receive a prison term of two to four years in states such as California. If your alimony order is half what it would have been if you had told the court the truth in your divorce documents, you might get just a slap on the wrist and an adjusted alimony order, or you could face criminal charges or civil sanctions, such as having to make an extra monetary payment to your ex to compensate. In many states, perjury is a felony, but the judge could still just place you on probation if the result of your lie wasn’t very serious. If your perjury involves the federal government, such as lying on your tax return, you risk a minimum of a year in prison, plus fines.