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Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has become a rite of passage for millions of college-bound students and their parents. Colleges use the FAFSA to determine how much students and their parents can afford to pay, and how much financial aid they might offer. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 87% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students at four-year colleges receive some form of financial aid. For many, the FAFSA is the key that unlocks the financial aid they need.
But, is filling out the FAFSA different for students with divorced parents? If parents are divorced or separated and live apart, only one parent may be required to answer financial questions on the FAFSA. The FAFSA has a number of specific rules around this, however, so read on to learn more.
Which Parent Should Fill Out the FAFSA?
When parents are divorced or separated, the FAFSA considers whether they share a household. Depending on their marital status and living arrangement, one or both parents may need to answer financial questions on the FAFSA.
- Answer questions for both parents if the parents are separated or divorced but live in the same household. You should also provide financial information for both parents if they are unmarried but living together, or are married and living apart, such as if they work in different cities. Parents are considered separated if they are legally separated in their state, or if they maintain different households and live as if they are not married.
- Answer questions for the custodial parent only if the parents are divorced or separated and living in separate households. If the custodial parent is remarried, be prepared to provide financial information on the stepparent as well.
Who Is the Custodial Parent?
The custodial parent is the parent the student lives with most of the time. If the student splits their time evenly between households, the custodial parent is the one who has provided the most financial support during the past 12 months, or the most recent 12-month period that the student was supported.
Students may not need to include information about either parent if they are considered independent according to FAFSA guidelines. You might be an independent student if you are married, have children or other dependents you support, are active-duty military or a veteran, or have been declared an emancipated minor.
You may not have to provide parent information if you are in one of these special circumstances:
- Your parent is incarcerated.
- You left home due to an abusive family environment.
- You can't locate or contact your parent.
- You are older than 21 but younger than 24, are unaccompanied and are either homeless or at risk of being homeless.
Even if you live with any of the following people, they are not considered parents for FAFSA purposes unless they have legally adopted you: grandparents, foster parents, legal guardians, older siblings, uncles or aunts and widowed stepparents.
How Does Divorce Affect Eligibility?
Divorce itself doesn't affect eligibility for financial aid. The FAFSA considers the student's income and assets first, then the parents' household size, income and assets, to determine how much a student can afford to pay for college—whether a student's parents are married or divorced, and even their noncustodial parent's finances, are not considered on the application.
How to Fill Out the FAFSA As a Divorced Parent
FAFSA forms are available in October for enrollment the following fall. Visit FAFSA.gov to start your online application. Here's a quick rundown on how it works:
- Open an account at FAFSA.gov. The account should be set up in the student's name. Create separate FSA IDs for both the student and parent, so you can both e-sign the FAFSA when it's complete.
- Gather the documents you'll need. These documents include:
- Social Security numbers for both student and parent, or Alien Registration numbers if not U.S. citizens.
- Student's driver's license number (if they have one).
- Federal tax information, tax documents or tax returns, including IRS W-2 information, for the student and custodial parent.
- Records of untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income and veterans noneducation benefits, for both the student and parent.
- Savings and checking account balances; statements from investment accounts, including stocks, bonds and real estate (excluding your home); documents showing business and farm assets; and documents showing cash available for both the student and custodial parent.
- Your student's list of up to 10 prospective schools. They do not have to be accepted at a school to include it on your list.
- Complete the FAFSA. The online application offers tips for answering questions accurately as you go. If you hit a roadblock, you can save your partially-completed application and return to it later.
- Sign the completed FAFSA and submit. Once it's processed, your financial aid report will be provided to the schools specified on the FAFSA form.
More Ways to Pay for College
Colleges use FAFSA information to propose financial aid packages for each accepted student. Financial awards may include federal grants, work study and loans, as well as state grants, financial aid and school scholarships.
What if your financial aid package isn't enough? Meet with the school's financial aid office to discuss any further options they can suggest. In addition to the aid they've outlined, consider outside sources of funding:
- Private scholarships and grants, including scholarships from the parent's or student's employer, community groups, your credit union or local corporations
- Private student loans, home equity loans or personal loans for parents
- Part-time employment that pays more than federal work study
- Contributions from parents, grandparents, family or friends
You may also want to consider money-saving options if financing is tight. Attending community college for the first few years and/or living at home while attending school may help bring costs within reach if financial aid doesn't provide enough assistance, or if you're leery of taking on a large amount of student loan debt.
The Bottom Line
Filling out the FAFSA is a key step in the college application and selection process. Although filling out the FAFSA can require a bit more coordination for students with divorced parents, the application process itself is straightforward—and may be even simpler if only one parent is required to participate. The Federal Student Aid site offers a wealth of information for FAFSA applicants, but don't be afraid to enlist the help of your high school's college counselor, a private financial aid counselor or the financial aid office at your college of choice.