Custodial Parent on the FAFSA
When a dependent student’s parents are divorced or separated, only one parent must provide parent income and asset information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This parent is called the custodial parent.
The custodial parent is not necessarily the same as the parent who has legal custody or the parent who claimed the student as an exemption on his or her federal income tax return. Multiple support agreements do not affect which parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA.
The custodial parent is the parent with whom the student lived the most during the 12 months ending on the date the FAFSA is submitted.
Determining the Custodial Parent
Count the number of nights a student spent with each parent. This figure must be consistent with a child custody agreement. If the living arrangements changed, the parents should go back to court to modify the child custody agreement.
Since there are an odd number of days in the year, the number of nights with each parent is normally definitive. Problems occur only for equal custody during leap years (which have an even number of days) or for recent divorces that are less than a year in duration.
If the student lived equally with both parents, the custodial parent is the parent who provided more financial support to the student.
If the parents split the financial support down to the penny, then the college financial aid administrator will decide which parent must complete the FAFSA. In most cases the financial aid administrator will choose the parent with the greater income, which will yield less need-based financial aid for the student.
Marital Status of the Custodial Parent
Questions about the parent’s marital status refer to the custodial parent’s current marital status. Thus, if the custodial parent has remarried, the marital status is “Married” and not “Divorced or Separated.”
If the custodial parent has remarried as of the date the FAFSA is filed, the stepparent’s income and assets must be reported on the FAFSA, even if the custodial parent got married after the end of the tax year and even if there is a prenuptial agreement.
If the custodial parent died before the FAFSA is filed, the stepparent is no longer considered the student’s parent on the FAFSA, even if the student is still living with the stepparent. The student’s other legal parent must complete the FAFSA instead.
If the student has not had meaningful contact with or financial support from the noncustodial parent, some colleges will perform a dependency override to treat the student as independent.
Since the stepparent is no longer married to the custodial parent, any support that the student receives from the stepparent is reported as untaxed income to the student (i.e., as cash support).