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.
What is a dependent student?
In general, a dependent student is one that is dependent on their parent or guardian for financial assistance and is therefore required to report that 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.
See also: How Does the FAFSA Work?
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 they are:
- 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 for aid
If you meet even ONE of the above criteria for independent students, you do NOT to 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 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.
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, though, that status changes are rare and typically only granted in extreme circumstances at the discretion of your school’s financial aid office.
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.