Completing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be complicated enough, but when you add divorced parents, stepparents, separations and other complicated parental issues to the equation, the confusion is amplified significantly. Add to that the stress of finding tax documents under a tight timeline and you may find your head spinning.
Fortunately, we've handled the difficult part of interpreting the FAFSA completion rules and boiled that information down to five tips that can help you ascertain the answers to your most pressing FAFSA completion questions. If your parents are no longer together, read on to find out exactly how you should fill out your FAFSA form. And — just a tip — if your parents are separated but still live together, skip straight to number five.
1. Determine Which Parent to Include on the Form
Students with parents who are divorced or separated and living apart must take great care when deciding who to list as the parent on the FAFSA. When making this determination, the government instructs you to “answer the questions about the parent with whom you lived more during the past 12 months."
So if you lived with your mom four days out of every week and then you spent three days a week at your father's house, you would answer this question using your mother's information, since you lived with her more.
2. Know What to Do If You Live With Different Parents on A 50/50 Basis
Students who lived with each parent the exact same amount of time over the past 12 months are expected to list the parent who provided the most financial support during the last year, the Department of Education says on its website.
3. When Should You Add Stepparents' Information?
Once you determine which parent you'll be listing on the FAFSA, you'll also need to collect information about that parent's spouse, if they have one, advises Jodi Okun of College Financial Aid Advisors. This is important to remember if the custodial parent has remarried.
“If you have a stepparent who is married to the legal parent whose information you're reporting, you must provide information about that stepparent as well," the Department of Education confirms.
Therefore, for instance, if you lived with your mother and stepfather the majority of the past year, you'll list their income information on your FAFSA and not your father's and/or stepmother's data.
4. Know What to Do If Your Parents Refuse to Share Financial Information
Unfortunately, parents are not always forthcoming with their financial data, especially if they are in a contentious situation. Although you might think this precludes you from completing the form, it absolutely does not.
If your parents won't share information, you can mark “no" when the FAFSA asks whether you have your parents' information, after which the form will prompt you to add any special circumstances to explain why.
If your reason is simply that your parents refuse to do so, you'll mark that you have no special circumstances, and that's when things get problematic. “The FAFSA explains that if your parents don't support you and refuse to provide their information on the FAFSA, you may submit your FAFSA without their information," the DOE advises on its website. “However, you won't be able to get any federal student aid other than an unsubsidized loan — and even that might not happen."
If you mark your FAFSA this way, contact the college you'll be attending as soon as possible to explain your situation. “The student should communicate to the financial aid office that the parent(s) refuses to give the financial information -- and the college can give the student suggestions based on their individual situation," Okun advises.
5. Know When None of This Matters
If your parents are separated but still live together, they are considered “married" in the eyes of the FAFSA, so you won't need to worry about the above issues when completing your form.
In addition, some students are considered “independent" from a FAFSA standpoint, and don't need to add any parents' names to their FAFSA forms. For example, if you are over the age of 24, married, completing an advanced degree, on active military duty, a veteran, a parent, an emancipated minor or a child with no guardians, the government may consider you an independent student, meaning your parents' income is irrelevant when completing the FAFSA.