Answers to Your Toughest FAFSA Questions

Jon O'Donnell Updated on October 28, 2020

At Nitro, we want to help you get through the FAFSA with as little pain as possible. We also know that even with specialized guidance, individual circumstances may make some of the FAFSA questions difficult to answer. That’s why we recently gathered your latest and most complicated FAFSA questions and posed them to college financial aid pros to get the info you need.

Psst ... you can also check out our Step-By-Step Guide To Completing The 2021-2022 FAFSA Questions.

Here’s what we found out.  

I can't log into my FAFSA - what do I do?

Reader question 1I'm having trouble signing into the Department of Education website with my child’s ID and password. What do I do?

When completing your portion of the FAFSA as a parent, it’s important that you create your own unique FSA ID with the Department of Education. FSA IDs serve as a legal signature for the FAFSA, and therefore your ID and username should be independent from your child’s.

Once you’ve created your own FSA ID and are completing your portion of the FAFSA, make sure to create a Save Key to share with your child. That way, you can link their part of the application with yours.

If you already:

  • have an FSA ID but do not remember your username, click Forgot Username.
  • have an FSA ID but do not remember your password, click Forgot Password.
  • Note: The password must be between 8 to 30 characters long. You can use any combination of numbers, uppercase and lowercase letters, and / or special characters.

Reader question 2I cannot get into my FAFSA!

Check to make sure your FSA ID is fully functional if you are having trouble logging into your FAFSA with your username and password (FSA ID) by doing the following:

  1. Go to studentaid.gov and select “Forgot My Username” or “Forgot My Password” to try to recover your account.
  2. Check to see if your FSA ID is matched with the Social Security Administration (SSA). 
    a.
    If the status is "Pending," your FSA ID is still being matched with SSA, and you should try to use your FSA ID in a day or so. (It takes one to three days from the FSA ID was created to match with SSA).
    b.
    If the status is "Not Matched," your information did not match with SSA. Therefore, you will need to go to your information page and check to make sure your name, Social Security Number (SSN), and date of birth entered are correct and entered as they appear on your social security card. (If you changed your name, be sure you are using the name on file with the SSA).
    c.
    If the status is "Matched," your information matched with the SSA.
  3. Is your FSA ID enabled? If your FSA ID status is disabled and you did not disable it, please call the Federal Student Aid (FSA) Center at 1.800.433.3243) Call TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing at 1.800.730.8913.

I forgot my FAFSA password.

Reader questionI don’t remember my FAFSA password. What can I do?

If you have an FSA ID but do not remember your password, select “Forgot My Password” and followed the steps below:

  • Enter your username, verified email address, verified mobile phone number, and the month and day of your birthday.
  • Please select one of the three recovery options: Text a secure code to my mobile phone, Email a secure code, Answer my challenge questions. *
  • Enter your security code or answer your challenge questions.
  • Create a new password.

*Please note that if you use the challenge question option to reset your password for security purposes, there is a 30-minute delay before you can use your FSA ID.

What if I don’t have a driver’s license?

Reader questionI don’t have a driver’s license. Should I put my state ID number or leave the form blank?

The field for driver’s license on the FAFSA is optional, so it’s up to you. You can choose to enter your state ID number or you can simply leave the field blank. The choice is yours.

If you do submit your state ID number, the Department of Education will use it to further verify your identity for security purposes.  

Can I create the FAFSA ID for my parents?

Reader questionCan I create the FAFSA ID for my parents? How do I do it?

To make a parent FSA ID, you will need to do the following:

  • Go to studentaid.gov/
  • Fill in the information under "Create an FSA ID" and then click "continue."
  • You will be directed to another page to input your parent's personal information such as their name, address, and Social Security number.
  • Then submit the request.

When you first create your FSA ID, the use of your FSA ID will be restricted to completing, signing, and submitting an original (first-time) FAFSA form. You'll have to wait one to three days for your information to be confirmed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) before you can use your FSA ID for other actions, such as submitting a FAFSA Renewal or signing a Master Promissory Note. If you provided an email address, you'd receive an email letting you know that your information was successfully matched with the SSA, and you can begin using your FSA ID.

Please note, you cannot use the same email address or phone number that the student’s used for their FSA ID. The student and the parent cannot have the same FSA ID.

Do I need to have this year’s tax return?

Reader question: I haven’t filed my taxes yet this year and I read that my child won’t receive aid unless I have. Is it okay to use last year’s tax return?

Absolutely. In fact, in recent years the Department of Education has changed their position on which tax return is required for the FAFSA.

When completing the FAFSA for the 2021-2022 school year, students (and their parents, if the student is considered dependent) will submit information from their 2019 Tax return.

For online applications, the Department of Education uses a tool called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) which allows students and parents who filed a U.S tax return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to access the tax return information needed to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and transfer the data directly into their FAFSA.

Here's a handy chart from the Department of Education for more info:

When a Student Is Attending
College (School Year)
When a Student Can
Submit a FAFSA

Which Year's Income Tax
Information Is Required

July 1, 2021 - June 30, 2022 October 1, 2020 - June 30, 2021 2019
July 1, 2021 - June 30, 2023 October 1, 2020 - June 30, 2022 2020
July 1, 2021 - June 30, 2024 October 1, 2020 - June 30, 2023 2021
July 1, 2021 - June 30, 2025 October 1, 2020 - June 30, 2024 2022
July 1, 2021 - June 30, 2026 October 1, 2020 - June 30, 2025 2023




How does retirement affect FAFSA income reporting?

Reader question: My husband retired this year, causing our income to drop significantly. When filling out the FAFSA, should we use last year’s tax info, or should we use the income we will be claiming on our 2018 taxes?

If you're filling out the FAFSA in the fall, you'll need to use your tax info for 2019. However, if your income has changed substantially during 2019, you can call the school that your child plans to attend and let them know about your decrease in earnings. Schools are sometimes able to adjust the data you supplied on your FAFSA if special circumstances apply, such as a job loss.

You will probably be asked to submit additional documents for verification.  In any case, don't wait until January to apply for FAFSA, or you could miss out on important financial aid deadlines. 

How do I correct a mistake on my child's FAFSA?

Reader questionI was ready to submit the FAFSA and noticed that the filing status for my child is listed as married-filing joint return. She is NOT married and didn't file any type of tax return. FAFSA will not allow me to change this. How can I make a correction?

You should be able to make changes to any field in your FAFSA application (except your Social Security number), either before or after you have clicked Submit.

To make changes, click the Login button on the FAFSA home page and then click Make FAFSA Corrections. Your correction should be processed in three to five days.

How do I note student income if he/she did not file taxes?

Reader question: My student received a 1098T in 2019 and there is $3500 difference between box 5 and box 2. I assume the difference would be considered income for the IRS and included on a 1040A line 7. However, he was not required to file taxes. The question is, where do we put this amount on the FAFSA? I would guess in the question #38, but that seems to be income from working. We don't want to mess up and lose out on financial aid money.

Your student is not required to report this amount on the FAFSA since he was not required to file a 2019 tax return.

Do I need to include 529 accounts for my other children? What about other investments?

Reader questionI would like to know what’s included for the net worth investments. We have a 17 year-old who is going to college next year and a 14-year old and we have some money saved in 529 accounts for each of them. Do we report a total of two accounts of 529 on the FAFSA, or only the portion that is dedicated for the 17 year-old? I am assuming any stocks are added to this line as well? What else should be added to this line? I read that we do not add our 401K, the house we currently live in, cars, etc.

You will need to report the total combined dollar amount contained in both 529 plans for both of your children.   

You are correct that stocks and other investments should be added to this line as well, including:

  • the net worth of investment properties (which can be found by subtracting the debt owed on the property from the value of the property)
  • trust funds
  • UGMA and UTMA accounts - UGMA and UTMA accounts are considered assets of the student, and must be reported as an asset of the student on the FAFSA regardless of student’s dependency status.
  • money market funds
  • mutual funds
  • certificates of deposit
  • stocks
  • stock options
  • bonds
  • other securities
  • installment and land sale contracts (including mortgages held), and
  • commodities.

Do NOT include your current home, car, or 401(k). (the home in which you (and your spouse) live; cash, savings and checking accounts; ABLE accounts; or the value of life insurance and retirement plans (401[k] plans, pension funds, annuities, non-education IRAs, Keogh plans, etc.).

Do I have to list fellowships from 2019 as income?

Reader questionIn 2019, I received a fellowship for my graduate studies. I am now filling out FAFSA for academic year 2021-2022 for a different graduate program. I am confused about whether I should list the amount from line 7 of my 2019 1040 form under taxable scholarship income. I did report scholarship income to the IRS in 2019, but it seems irrelevant for my financial status for the 2021-2022 academic year since I received no scholarship in 2019 and will not receive any scholarship in 2021-2022.

Should I input $0 for FAFSA question #43 or should I input the amount from the 2019 1040 line 7?

If the taxable income from the 2019 fellowship appears on Line 7 of your 2019 1040, you must report that number, since the FAFSA is asking for information from that year.

Completing the FAFSA with divorced parents

If your parents are separated or divorced, the custodial parent is responsible for filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The custodial parent for federal student aid purposes is the parent with whom you lived the most during the past 12 months. (The twelve month period is the twelve month period ending on the FAFSA application date, not the previous calendar year.) Note that this is not necessarily the same as the parent who has legal custody. If you did not live with one parent more than the other, the parent who provided you with the most financial support during the past twelve months should fill out the FAFSA. This is probably the parent who claimed you as a dependent on their tax return. If you have not received any support from either parent during the past 12 months, use the most recent calendar year for which you received some support from a parent.

Reader question: My daughter goes to college next year. I am her custodial parent with less income than her re-married father. However, I have far more assets to claim than her dad & step-mom. TRICKY PART: Due to a serious illness, she lived only 6 months with me, and 6 months with them in the last 12 months. Who is better off submitting the FAFSA since we can legally have either parent do it?

If a parent is below the year's income threshold, they are not required to answer questions about assets. You get a pass if you are below the income threshold for the year and file certain types of tax forms. For example, if a family can qualify for the simplified needs test (must have an adjusted gross income under $50,000, and are eligible to file a simplified federal income tax return, such as an IRS 1040A or 1040EZ, the simplified needs test will disregard all assets. However, if the family doesn't qualify for the simplified needs test, a portion of their reportable assets will be sheltered by an asset protection allowance. This allowance is based on the age of the older parent. For most college-aged children, this allowance is around $50,000. Any remaining assets are assessed according to a bracketed scale. Nationally, parental assets affect the aid eligibility of less than 4% of dependent students. It is important to note that 14 states do not allow students to qualify for the simplified needs test or auto-zero EFC to skip the asset questions. An applicant who qualifies for the simplified needs test may still be required to report assets on the FAFSA if they live in a state involving asset information to determine eligibility for state grant programs. The asset information will be used only to determine eligibility for state grant programs. It will not be used to determine eligibility for federal student aid. The states include Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington, Washington, D.C., Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Reader question 2: Do I have to include my child’s father’s income if we are no longer married? My child lives with me and I claim her as a dependent on my taxes.

Since you are not married and do not live with the child’s father, you alone are considered the custodial parent and therefore you do not have to include his income.

Keep in mind that you will need to include any child support you receive and/or the income of a spouse if you have since remarried.

Parents separated but not divorced.

Reader question:  My parents are separated but still married. Whose income do I report? What if the parent I live with does not work?

For FAFSA purposes, your married parents are separated if they are considered legally separated by a state, or if they are legally married but have chosen to live separate lives, including living in separate households, as though they were not married.

If your parents are separated and do not live together, answer the questions about the parent with whom you lived more during the past 12 months.

If you lived the same amount of time with each separated parent, give answers about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months or the most recent 12 months that you received support from a parent.

Divorced but split 50/50 custody.

Reader questionI am divorced, and we have 50/50 custody? Who should fill out FAFSA? Whose income should be included?

If your parents are divorced and do not live together, answer the questions about the parent with whom you lived more during the past 12 months.

If you lived the same amount of time with each divorced parent, give answers about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months or the most recent 12 months that you received support from a parent.

If I remarried, do I need to include my spouse's income?

Reader questionIf I remarried and filed joint taxes for the past couple of years, do I need to include all income (for me and my spouse) even though my spouse’s income does not support my dependent?

Yes. If you are divorced, the FAFSA is completed using the custodial parent's income. If you have remarried and you are the custodial parent, your spouse's income and assets must be included when reporting financial information.

Should parents file as married or divorced if they have remarried?

Reader questionI’m not sure whether to list married or divorced on the FAFSA. I put divorced, but when I included my new husband’s income, it questioned whether I had made a mistake. What should I do?

You should select the "married/remarried" option for yourself.

Since you are remarried, you are right that you will need to include your current husband's income and assets when reporting your financial information.

Should I include a non-custodial parent on FAFSA?

Reader questionI have three kids going to college. I never married their father and we have both since married other people. How do I fill out the part where it says marital status of “parents?” Is that including their father?

As the custodial parent, you do not need to list the children's father on the application. You should select the "married/remarried" option for yourself.

However, since you are remarried, you will need to include your current husband's income and assets when reporting your financial information. 

Can I correct my FAFSA after I submitted it? How?

Yes. You make changes in three ways:

  1. You would need to go to studentaid.gov/. 
    - Select the "Log In" button and enter your FSA ID.
    - On the “My FAFSA” page, select “Make FAFSA Corrections.” 
    - Create a save key.
    - Change your information
    - Submit your new information
  2. Write the corrections or updates on your SAR, sign it, and mail it to the address provided on the SAR.
  3. Check with the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend; the school might be able to electronically make the changes for you.

I moved to a new state - what do I need to do?

Reader questionI moved to a new state since filing FAFSA.  Do I need to resubmit my FAFSA?

No, you do not have to resubmit your FAFSA. However, you may want to correct your address on your existing FAFSA. The aid you receive from FAFSA is federal, not state. Therefore, the address field does not determine aid eligibility. 

What if I don’t have a permanent address?

Reader question:  I will be traveling a lot next fall and winter after my child leaves for school. Is it OK to use a P.O. Box or my employer's address for a permanent address?

For the purposes of filling out the FAFSA, you should use the address at which you currently reside.

If you do not currently have a permanent address, you may use another address, such as a P.O. Box, where you can receive correspondence.

Make sure to include your email address so that communications about your financial aid application can be sent to you electronically. 

What to claim on the FAFSA when I live in a rental property?

Reader questionThe home in which I live is also a rental property (duplex).  The form states not to claim the home in which I live.... but then it also states to claim rental properties.  How do I complete this line item?

For multi-family homes and apartment buildings where the owner occupies a unit, the portion not occupied by the owner is treated as an investment asset. Only the units occupied by the family are considered to be the family's primary residence.

If the property is not deeded separately, the value of the primary residence versus the investment property can be divided using any of the following methods:

* Number of units occupied by the owner versus the number of units occupied by the tenants.
* Square footage occupied by the owner versus the square footage occupied by the tenants.
* Number of bedrooms in each unit.
* Prorated according to the fair rental value of each unit.

This allows one to apportion an estimate of the fair market value of the building. For example, in a case involving a duplex, the net market value should be divided evenly.

For more information about this, please contact Federal Student Aid (FSA) at 1.800.433.3243.

How man tax forms must I include?

Reader questionHow many tax forms/bank statements must I include when I fill out FAFSA?

To complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you will need the following, if applicable:

Your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)

Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)

Records of untaxed income (if applicable)

Income has changed since we filed our last tax return. What can I do?

Reader question: Our income has changed since we filed our 2019 tax return. I want my financial aid to reflect my current (decreased) income. What can I do?

If your 2019 financial situation no longer reflects your status, speak with the school's office of financial aid that you plan to attend after submitting your FAFSA form. If you feel that your household income has significantly changed since 2019, you can request special consideration. You will be asked to submit appropriate supporting documentation to your school’s financial aid office. The Financial Aid Office will review each situation individually to determine if professional judgment should be utilized to recalculate financial need.

What should I do if the income on last year’s tax return exceeds our expected income this year?

Reader question:  My husband earned an additional $15,000 in overtime in 2018 and 2019, putting us into a different income bracket. However, we are not going to be getting that additional income again this year. Is there a way to discuss this with someone?

You must report your family’s full income from last year’s tax return on the FAFSA, even if your income will be different going forward.

However, if you feel that this additional income will unfairly reduce your aid package, make sure to contact the school’s financial aid office after receiving your aid award letter to explain your extenuating circumstances.

If your financial aid office has an appeal process, you may be able to provide proof of this temporary income change, which may yield additional aid consideration

Breaking down questions 86 & 87.

Reader questionI really hope you can help me! On questions 86 and 87, on 2021-2022 FAFSA form, what do I enter if I had a loss and file a schedule C? I put zero but does that penalize us but not giving us the employment expense allowance and income protection allowance? 

I also filed a Schedule 1 and technically qualify as a dislocated worker.  How do I get it to let me answer those questions?”

When completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), it uses skip logic based upon the information you provided at that time.  Skip-logic functionality means applicants see only the questions that pertain to them. The use of skip logic technology makes sure students and families answer the minimal number of questions to determine their ability to pay for college. Therefore, you cannot select and choose the questions you want to answer. The next question is based on your answer to the last question.

Question 82 asks the parent, "Did (or will) your parents file a Schedule 1 with their tax return? She should have answered 'yes' to this question. The following question (83) asks about being a dislocated worker. Those questions are before 86 and 87.

Income protection allowance is the dollar amount of living expenses deducted from an individual or family’s income. The dollar offset varies by family size. The Income Protection Allowance for dependent students is $6,660. 
The allowance for employment-related expenses for dependent students' parents recognizes the additional costs incurred by working spouses and single-parent households. This allowance is calculated based on the marginal differences in expenditures for a two-worker family compared to a one worker family. The items covered by these additional expenses are:

  • Food costs away from home,
  • Apparel,
  • Transportation,
  • Household furnishings and operations.

The employment expense allowance for parents of dependent students is the lesser of $4,000 or 35 percent of the lowest-earning spouse's earned income.

To answer questions, 86 and 87, use the following information:

For tax filers, enter the combined amounts from IRS Form 1040 line 1 + Schedule 1 lines 12 + 18* + Box 14 (Code A) of IRS Schedule K-1 (Form 1065)

*Lines 12 and 18 and Box 14 [Code A] of IRS Schedule K-1 (Form 1065) are for tax filers who are self-employed.

Note: If values from lines 12 or 18 or Box 14 [Code A] of IRS Schedule K-1 (Form 1065) are negative, treat them as zero when determining the income earned from work.

Note: The line numbers above are from the IRS tax form, not from the W-2 form.

This was a very complicated question. It's also a little confusing. I would refer her to call FSA customer service. If she has no income, she is not entitled to the allowance. I do not know what effect that will have on her EFC. Usually, people have 0 income receive max, Pell. However, I do not know the other variables (savings and investments) she may have, which could change that. She needs to call FSA.

Do independent students need to include their parents’ income?

Reader questionMy daughter is starting pharmacy school and as a graduate student is considered independent. Do I still have to include my income information on her FAFSA?

No. Graduate students, like all other independent students, are not required to report their parents’ income on their FAFSA.

How do I handle large assets?

Reader question:  When does a large asset like a second home have to be included on the FAFSA? What if it doesn’t have a mortgage and is not earning a rental income?

Any real estate owned by a parent (or the student) that is not used as a primary residence is considered an investment by the Department of Education.

The only exceptions would be if the home was owned by a non-custodial parent or if the debt owed on the real estate exceeded its current value. 

Should I include stock dividends?

Reader question:  Should I include shareholders distributions (Line 17 on Form 1040) on the FAFSA?

Yes. Shareholder distributions should be included on the income portion of the FAFSA.

If you are completing the form online, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to pull your income information directly from your previously filed tax return and have it automatically filled in on your application. 

What is TAP?

Reader questionI filed FAFSA before I knew about TAP. What do I do?

If you missed the link to TAP on the Web when you completed your FAFSA, you must wait until you receive either an email or a postcard with TAP's web address on the Web. You can then set up a PIN, which will allow you to access the TAP on the website, and you can complete your TAP application and have it submitted to HESC.

Should I include my retirement account when I report my investments?

Reader questionXn question 42 of the FAFSA, should I report investments such as IRAs that are meant for retirement, or just 529 college savings plans?

It depends on the investment.

Your retirement account as well as your primary home, vehicle, checking account, and life insurance policy do not need to be reported. Therefore you should not include your IRA balance on this question.

All other investment assets should be reported, including 529 plans, investment properties, trust funds, mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and commodities should be included when answering questions 41-42


Have more questions about FAFSA?

Check out our trove of resources on how to apply, when to apply, and what kind of aid you may be eligible for through FAFSA.

Published in: FAFSA

About the Author
Jon O'Donnell

Jon is a writer and marketer for Nitro who is passionate about bringing transparency to the student loan process along with providing families with the information needed to make smart financial decisions. He also just recently refinanced his student loans allowing him to pay them off 5 years faster all while saving an additional $152/month. As he continues to pay them off himself, he strives to help others do the same. Jon also has a long history of connecting people with educational opportunities to help them improve their careers and their overall personal finances. In his free time you can find him reading travel blogs and researching destinations around the world in search of his next adventure. Read more by Jon O'Donnell

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