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4 FAFSA Tips for Students With Divorced Parents

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 tips to make completing your FAFSA a little easier no matter what your family situation is.

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1. Know who is defined 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 the people you consider your parents may not be the same people that count on the FAFSA.

That's important because the information you enter will be used to determine your expected family contribution or EFC. This 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 helpful in figuring out how the FAFSA defines who’s who in your family tree. who-is-my-parentIf your parents aren’t divorced, fill out the FAFSA with details from both of them. If they are divorced, things get a little trickier, as only one parent is considered a parent for FAFSA purposes in this situation.

If your parents live together, even if they are separated, divorced, or were never married, you file the FAFSA with income information from both of them. If your parents are separated, divorced, 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: Having "legal custody" isn't necessarily the same as having equal custodial-parent status. 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.

See also: How Does the FAFSA Work?

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 need to report your stepparent's information on the FAFSA. In that case, you do not report income information from your noncustodial 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 nontaxable 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 essentially 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 stepparent.

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.

See also: 11 Common FAFSA Mistakes that Can Cost You Money

2. Gather the right info

No matter your parents’ marital status, 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
  • Your alien registration number if you're 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

Note: Some schools may require a copy of the divorce agreement in deciding your financial aid, but you won't need that information when you submit the FAFSA.

See also: We Answer Your FAFSA Questions

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 could overreport income and lose out on financial aid you would have been eligible for.

Focus your application on the custodial parent and you’ll be fine. At some private schools, noncustodial parents may be required to provide information later when aid is being awarded, but there's no need to 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, as you do with child support, which is untaxed. Doing so would overreport income and it may reduce what’s offered in your financial package.

4. Know how to work the situation for more aid

There are a few ways to (legitimately) use divorced, separated, or unmarried parental marital status to your financial aid advantage. One is ensuring that your custodial parent is the one who makes less money. By living with the parent who earns less, your EFC will be lower and your aid package could be higher. But, don’t falsely report which parent you live with based on income — 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 doesn't fall solely on one parent’s shoulders.

See also: The #1 Most-Costly Mistake People Make When Paying for College

Don't be afraid to ask for help

No matter how far from "traditional" your family situation is, these tips can help you fill out the FAFSA. Remember, financial aid advisors at colleges are experts in these FAFSA rules, and they've seen lots of different family configurations, so nothing will surprise them. When in doubt, don't hesitate to ask them for help. 

Be sure to check our question-by-question FAFSA guide to help ensure that you qualify for the maximum amount of financial aid that you're entitled to. 

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