Though the FAFSA might be a little more complicated when you have divorced or never-married parents, your family situation shouldn't hold you back from receiving as much student aid as possible.
Here, we'll walk you through some basic tips that can make completing your FAFSA a little less painful when your family situation is complicated.
1. Know who to define as a "parent"
The FAFSA uses information about your family's financial situation to determine your financial aid eligibility. That means you'll need income information from your parents — but not everyone you might consider a parent counts as one on the FAFSA.
That's important, because the information you enter will be used to determined your expected family contribution or EFC. This is a formula that takes into account your family's tax information, untaxed income, assets, and benefits. The EFC also considers the size of your family and the number of other kids in your family attending college during the year.
So whose information should you enter?
This infographic from the U.S Department of Education is super helpful in figuring the FAFSA-defined who’s who of your family tree.
If your parents aren’t divorced, fill out the FAFSA with details from both of them. If they ARE divorced, things start to get a little tricky, as only one parent is considered a parent for FAFSA purposes in this situation.
If your parents live together, even if they are separated, were never married, or are divorced, you file the FAFSA with income information from both of them. If your parents are divorced, separated, or were never married and DON’T live together, you fill out the FAFSA based on your custodial parent. That’s the parent you physically live with more than the other. Note that having "legal custody" does not automatically equal custodial-parent status. Rather, it's a question of where you spend the most time and which parent provides the most financial support.
If you live with both parents equally, you fill out the FAFSA based on the parent who gave you more financial support in the last year.
What about stepparents and unmarried significant others?
If your parents don’t live together and your custodial parent (or your parent who supported you financially) has gotten remarried, you DO report your stepparent's information on the FAFSA. In that case, you do NOT report income information from your non-custodial or non-financially supportive parent.
If your custodial parent simply lives with a new significant other and is not legally married, you only need to report your legal guardian's income information. However, if the significant other is helping with rent or utilities, those contributions must be listed as non-taxable income.
What about common-law spouses?
Of course, the wrench in that situation is common-law marriage. If your parent and their significant other have been together for a certain amount of time and basically live as if they’re married, your state may recognize them as so. If common law marriage applies to your family, you DO count the custodial parent's significant other as a step parent.
What if you live with someone other than a parent?
If you live with someone other than your parents, you still report your parent’s information on FAFSA, unless the person you live with has legally adopted you.
2. Gather the right info
No matter what your parents’ marital status is, you’ll need to share the same information as other students. According to the Federal Student Aid website this includes:
- Your Social Security number
- Your parents’ Social Security numbers
- Your driver's license number
- You alien registration number if you are not a citizen
- Federal tax information for you and your custodial parent/reporting parent
- Information about untaxed income, such as child support, received by your reporting parent
- Information on cash and liquid assets in accounts, investments, and business income
- The date of your parents' divorce or separation
Also, some schools may require a copy of the divorce agreement in deciding on financial aid, but you will not need that information when you submit the FAFSA.
3. Don't overshare
Remember that you don't need to include the financial information of every adult in your life. If you do, you are over reporting income and could lose out on financial aid.
Focus your application on the custodial parent and you’ll be fine. Noncustodial parents may be required to provide information to private schools when aid is being awarded, but don’t overreach with FAFSA.
Also, be aware that alimony is considered taxable income and should already be included in the custodial parent’s tax information. Don’t report it separately, like you do with child support, which is untaxed. Doing so means you’re again over reporting income and may lessen what’s offered in your financial package.
4. Know how to work the situation for more aid
There are a few ways to use divorced, separated, or unmarried parental marital status to your financial aid advantage. One is by ensuring that your custodial parent is the one who makes less money. By living with the parent who earns less, you EFC will be lower and your aid package could be higher. However, don’t falsely report who you live with based on income because that’s fraud.
Divorce settlement agreements can (and should) include the written details of a college support plan. In this case, parents decide the percentage of college costs each person is responsible for and what expenses will be covered by each parent. With these agreements in place, the custodial parent still fills out the FAFSA, but there’s a plan in place for actually covering the EFC so that it does not fall solely on one parent’s shoulders.
Don't be afraid to ask for help
Hopefully, these tips help you figure out how to fill out the FAFSA if your family situation isn’t exactly “traditional.” Remember, financial aid advisors at colleges are experts in these FAFSA rules. When in doubt, ask them for help.