Mike Brown Updated on December 12, 2017

As if the process of choosing and applying to colleges isn't hard enough, along comes the FAFSA form. There are tons of benefits to filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) but that doesn't mean it's a simple process. In fact, at NitroCollege, we've got a whole section of our blog and a downloadable e-book dedicated to things you should know about filling out your FAFSA form. And one thing that makes the FAFSA even less straightforward is parent marital status.

Family structure and FAFSA

In this modern age, families look very different than they used to. The nuclear family of a mom, dad, and two children is hardly the norm today. Students who are preparing for college come from all sorts of family situations and it can be tricky to figure out how to represent those on the FAFSA. Having divorced or separated parents can make the FAFSA a little more confusing than usual.

The basics

First of all, you have to know things like who the custodial parent is and what role the adults in your life play when it comes to financial aid. Keep in mind that legal custody does not equal custodial parent status on the FAFSA.

In addition, you have to have all of the details about the divorce or separation in order to fill out the FAFSA. There are also tricks to filling out the FAFSA when it comes to parent income and child support.

Lastly, kids of divorced parents have to know how to fill out the FAFSA in a way that might benefit their financial aid packages.

All those reasons are why we've put this post together. Though the FAFSA might be a little more complicated when you've got divorced parents, your family situation shouldn't hold you back from trying to receive as much student aid as possible.

Know who's who and who does what

You probably already know that one factor in determining how much financial aid you'll get is based on the expected family contribution or EFC. This is a formula that takes your family's tax information, untaxed income, assets, and benefits into consideration. It also looks at the size of your family and the number of other kids in your family attending college during the year. But not everyone you might consider a parent counts as one on the FAFSA, so let’s figure out who does.

This infographic from the U.S Department of Education is super helpful in figuring the FAFSA-defined who’s who of your family tree.

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If your parents aren’t divorced, you 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 for 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.

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.

Here’s the catch– 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 step-parent's information (as opposed to your non-custodial or non-financially supportive parent). However, if your biological or adoptive parent simply lives with a new significant other and is not legally married, you only report your legal guardian's information.

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 non-biological or adoptive parent as a step 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.

Got all that?

Know the details

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 like child support received by your reporting parent
  • Information on cash and liquid assets in accounts, investments, and business income

 FAFSA will also ask the date of divorce or separation, so have court paperwork handy. Also, some schools may require a copy of the divorce agreement in deciding on financial aid.

Know which details to share

One of the number one mistakes when filling out the FAFSA with divorced or separated parents is oversharing. Today’s families are complicated mixtures of kids and parents and step-parents. Don’t include the financial information of every adult in your life. If you do, you are over reporting income and you’ll lose 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, 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.

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 will 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 parents’ shoulders.

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 rule. When in doubt, ask them for help. And, if you’ve got a situation not mentioned here and you just wing it on your FAFSA, remember, you can write an appeal letter and explain your situation in more depth. It’s not a guarantee for more aid, but it can help.

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