Four FAFSA Tips For Students With Divorced Parents

Though having divorced or never-married parents make the FAFSA a little more challenging, your family situation shouldn't prevent you from collecting as much financial aid as possible.

No matter what your family situation is, we'll walk you through some fundamental ideas to make completing your FAFSA a little easier.

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1. Know who to define as a "parent"

To evaluate your financial aid eligibility, the FAFSA uses information about your family's financial position. That means you'll need income information from your parents — yet your parents may not be the same individuals who file the FAFSA.

This is significant because the data you provide will be used to calculate your expected family contribution or EFC. This is a formula that considers your tax information, untaxed income, assets, and benefits for your family. The EFC also takes into account the size of your family and the number of other children in your household who are attending college during the year.

So whose information should you enter?

The US Department of Education's illustration on how the FAFSA defines who's who in your family tree is really helpful.

Fill out the FAFSA using information from both of your parents if they aren't divorced. If they're divorced, things get a little more complicated because only one parent is considered a parent for FAFSA purposes.

You must file the FAFSA with income information from both of your parents if they live together, even if they are separated, never married, or divorced. You fill out the FAFSA based on your custodial parent if your parents are divorced, separated, or never married and do not live together. That's the parent with whom you spend the most time physically. It's important to note that "legal custody" does not always imply custodial parent status. Rather, it comes down to who spends the most time with you and who gives the most financial support.

If you live equally with both parents, you should fill out the FAFSA for the parent who provided you with the most financial support in the previous year.

What about stepparents and unmarried significant others?

You must disclose your stepparent's information on the FAFSA if your parents do not live together and your custodial parent (or the parent who supported you financially) has remarried. And you don't report money from your noncustodial or financially unsupportive parent in that scenario.

You only need to declare your legal guardian's income if your custodial parent is just living with a new significant other and is not legally married. If your significant other helps with rent or utilities, however, those payments must be reported as nontaxable income.

What about common-law spouses?

Of course, common-law marriage throws a wrench into the scenario. Your state may recognize your parent and their significant other as married if they've been together for a particular amount of time and live as if they're married. If your family has a common-law marriage, the custodial parent's significant other is considered a stepparent.

What if you live with someone other than a parent?

Unless the person you live with has officially adopted you, you must still record your parents' information on FAFSA if you live with someone other than your parents.

2. Gather the right info

You'll have to share the same information as other students, regardless of your parents' marital status. This includes, according to the Federal Student Aid website:

What is your Social Security number?

Social Security numbers of your parents

The number on your driver's license

If you are not a citizen, your alien registration number.

For you and your custodial parent/reporting parent, federal tax information is available.

Information concerning untaxed income received by your reporting parent, such as child support.

Cash and liquid assets in accounts, investments and company revenue are all available.

Your parents' divorce or separation date

Furthermore, some schools may need a copy of the divorce agreement for determining financial aid, but you will not need this information when completing the FAFSA.

3. Don't overshare

Keep in mind that you don't have to provide the financial details of every adult in your life. If you do, you're over-reporting your income, which could result in you losing financial help.

You'll be alright if you focus your application on the custodial parent. Some private schools may need noncustodial parents to supply information later when aid is offered, but there's no need to go overboard with FAFSA.

Also, keep in mind that alimony is taxable income and should already be included in the tax information of the custodial parent. You don't have to declare it separately like child support, which isn't taxed. You'll be over-reporting income once more, and your financial package may be reduced as a result.

4. Know how to work the situation for more aid

There are a few ways to exploit the marital status of your divorced, split, or unmarried parents to your financial assistance benefit. One way is to make sure that your custodial parent earns less money. Your EFC will be smaller and your help package may be higher if you live with a parent who earns less. But don't lie about who you live with based on your salary – that's a form of fraud.

The formal terms of a college assistance plan can (and should) be included in divorce settlement agreements. In this situation, parents decide what percentage of college fees their child is accountable for, as well as what expenses each parent will cover. The custodial parent still fills out the FAFSA, but there's a plan in place to cover the EFC so that it doesn't lie primarily on the shoulders of one parent.

Don't be afraid to ask for help

If your family status isn't "conventional," following ideas should help you fill out the FAFSA. Remember that college financial aid consultants are experts on the FAFSA guidelines. When in doubt, seek assistance from them.

Make sure to review our FAFSA question-by-question guide to ensure that you qualify for the greatest amount of financial aid available.

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