An important distinction when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is whether to file as a dependent or independent student.
Your choice could have a big impact on how much aid you receive.
What is a dependent student?
In general, a dependent student is one that is dependent on their parent or parents for financial assistance and is therefore required to report parental income on the FAFSA.
The Department of Education has specific criteria to determine dependency for the purpose of student aid. A dependent student is a student who does not meet any of the requirements for an independent student—generally an undergrad student who lives with their parents.
What is an independent student?
An independent student only reports their own income and their spouse’s income, if applicable.
A student is considered independent if she or he meets any of the following criteria:
- is married
- is earning a graduate degree
- is a veteran or serving in active duty in the military
- was in foster care or lost both parents after the age of 13
- has been legally emancipated from his or her parents or guardians
- is homeless or has been deemed at risk for homelessness by an approved official
- has a child or dependent who receives more than half of their support from the student
- turns 24 before January 1st of the school year for which they are applying for aid. For instance, for the 2017-2018 school year, a student must be born before January 1st, 1994 in order to be considered independent, unless they qualify another way.
Filling out the FAFSA as an independent student
If you meet any of the above criteria for independent students, you do not need to include your parents’ information on the FAFSA.
Your school may ask for documentation of your independent status, such as a marriage certificate or proof of emancipation, so be prepared to provide it.
When it’s complicated to fill out the FAFSA as a dependent student
Remember, if you meet even just one of the requirements above, you’re considered independent. That remains the case even if your parent or parents do not live with you, are unwilling to provide their information, or refuse to have contact with you.
If you completed the FAFSA as a dependent student, but believe you should be considered independent due to complicated family circumstances or other reasons, contact your school’s financial aid office once you have been accepted.
If you have divorced parents
If you parents are divorced and you’re a dependent student, you only need to apply with your custodial parent's financial information. Children of married parents must include the income of both parents on the FAFSA.
If a single, divorced parent receives child support, it must be declared along with his or her income. And if the parent has remarried, their spouse’s income must also be included.
Changing your status
Because declaring a smaller income on the FAFSA generally means that a student will receive more financial aid, many people prefer to apply as an independent student.
If your parents cannot contribute to your education due to death, disability, incarceration, abandonment, abuse or another reason, you may be eligible to change your status by completing a Dependency Review Form.
Keep in mind, though, that status changes are rare and typically only granted in extreme circumstances at the discretion of your school’s financial aid office.