Bug in 2018-2019 FAFSA for Divorced and Separated Parents
There is a bug in the 2018-2019 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that affects applicants whose parents are divorced or separated, never married or widowed.
When an applicant indicates their parents are divorced or separated, never married or widowed on the 2018-2019 FAFSA, the FAFSA asks which parent’s information will be provided and provides two choices, Father’s and Mother’s. Most of the remaining question prompts then refer to the father or mother based on the answer to this question.
The FAFSA should not ask this question, as there only is one parent when the applicant’s parents are divorced or separated, never married or widowed.
Also, the FAFSA switched to gender-neutral terminology, Parent 1 and Parent 2, starting with the 2014-2015 FAFSA, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor (570 U.S. ____ 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013)). Thus, the FAFSA should refer to Parent 1 and not father or mother when the applicant’s parents are divorced or separated, never married or widowed. The gender-neutral terminology is correctly used when the applicant’s parents are married or remarried or unmarried and both legal parents living together.
When the applicant’s parents are divorced or separated, never married or widowed, the parent’s information should be stored as Parent 1 on the FAFSA.
If the applicant selects Mother’s as the response to this question, the parent’s information is stored as Parent 2 on the FAFSA.
This causes potential problems with the proper functioning of the online FAFSA. Some of the edit checks and the IRS Data Retrieval Tool may not work correctly if there is data for Parent 2 and no data for Parent 1. The FAFSA might get stuck when trying to process the data in the form, showing this dialog box spinning indefinitely.
Until the U.S. Department of Education has the opportunity to fix this bug, applicants should identify the parent completing the FAFSA as the father, regardless of the parent’s gender, when the applicant’s parents are divorced or separated, never married or widowed. This will ensure that the information for this parent is stored as Parent 1 on the FAFSA.
Update: After conversations with the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), I wanted to clarify that the word "bug" might not have been the best term to use in describing the issue identified with the 2018-2019 FAFSA. We have been able to confirm that the FAFSA and IRS Data Retrieval Tool are functioning correctly. The FAFSA is calculating the expected family contribution (EFC) correctly, nor is there any security risk to the personally identifiable information of applicants and their parents.
The use of the labels "Father" and "Mother" as opposed to "Parent 1" and "Parent 2" in connection with divorced and separated parents has been in place in previous years' FAFSAs. FSA says that this is the first time they received any feedback on this issue. FSA did acknowledge that this issue could lead to a less than optimal user experience and they have agreed to review this in next years’ application.