An important distinction when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is whether to file as a dependent or independent student. Which one are you? Your choice could have a big impact on how much aid you receive.
Why is that? Because the more income you report on your FAFSA, the less aid you'll receive.
Who is a dependent student?
In general, you are a dependent student if you're dependent on your parent or guardian for financial support (housing, groceries, etc.). In that case, you're required to report their 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 doesn't meet any of the requirements for an independent student. In the vast majority of cases, an undergrad student who lives with their parents is going to be considered a dependent.
Homeless or deemed at risk for homelessness by an approved official
Responsible for a child or dependent who receives more than half of their support from the student
Going to turn 24 before January 1st of the school year for which they are applying for aid
If any of these apply to you, you do not need to include your parents’ information on the FAFSA. Note: 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 just one of the requirements above, you’re considered independent. If they don't apply and you have tricky situations, such as not living with your parents, are not in contact with you, or they're simply unwilling to provide their information.
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 your parents are divorced and you’re a dependent student, you only need to apply with your custodial parent's financial information. If your custodial parent has remarried, you will also need to include your custodial parent's spouse's income information as well.
If a single, divorced parent receives child support, it must be declared along with their income.
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: Status changes are rare and typically only granted in extreme circumstances at the discretion of your school’s financial aid office. Simply having a less-than-ideal parental relationship isn't going to change your status.
Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky