How Does Divorce+Remarriage Affect Financial Aid?

Question: How is financial aid determined when the parents are divorced and both are remarried?

When both parents are remarried, the colleges that use only the FAFSA form will make their financial aid determinations based on the income and assets of just the custodial parent and his/her spouse. (And I'm talking about the stepparent here, not the ex, when I say "spouse.") Some parents--and, especially, stepparents--are none too thrilled to learn this, especially if the re-marriage is fairly new and the stepparent has already put his or her own kids through college and thus assumed that tuition bills were a done deal.

If custody is shared, then financial aid officials at FAFSA-only colleges will make their aid determination based on where the student claims to spend more time. (When custody is shared equally, a savvy family may want to decide which household is the poorer of the two and then proclaim that the kid lives with them six months and one day per year.)

At Institutional Methodology schools (the ones that require the CSS Profile form as well as the FAFSA), the situation is a bit more complex because policies can vary. According to my financial aid guru, Ann C. Playe (former associate director of admission and financial aid at Smith college), some schools will "put the original family back together" when determining income and assets, but other schools will "consider the custodial parent and step parent, if they have more money." Ann also notes that, "If it is a really old divorce, the school might not bother tracking down the non-custodial parent at all but will go with the custodial and step."

When it comes to family composition (and decomposition ;-)) seasoned college admission and financial aid officials have seen every possible combination and permutation. So if there is any situation--however anomalous or embarrassing--that you feel should be explained, don't hesitate to write a letter to the target colleges. Some schools may weigh your comments heavily and others not at all, but it is often worthwhile to ask for special consideration when you feel it may be warranted.