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How to Answer Independent v. Dependent Student for the FAFSA

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. 

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Who is a dependent student?

In general, you're a dependent student if you rely 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 one who doesn't meet any of the requirements to be an independent student. In the vast majority of cases, an undergrad student who lives with their parents is going to be considered a dependent.

See also: How Does the FAFSA Work?

Who is an independent student?

An independent student only reports their own income and, if applicable, their spouse’s income. A student is considered independent if they meet any of the following criteria. They are:

  • Married
  • Earning a graduate degree
  • A veteran or serving in active duty in the military
  • In foster care or lost both parents after the age of 13
  • Legally emancipated from their parents or guardians
  • 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

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.

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

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. But there are students who don't qualify as dependent, but they have unusual family circumstances, such as not living with their parents, not being in contact with them, or the parents are simply unwilling to provide their information. If that's your situation, not all hope is lost. 

If you completed the FAFSA as a dependent student, but believe you should be considered independent due to complicated family circumstances, contact your school’s financial aid office once you've been accepted. They can help you navigate what options you may have.

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'll 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. 

See also: We Answer Your FAFSA Questions

Changing your status

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. 

Need more help with your FAFSA?

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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