Dependent Students and Independent Students on the FAFSA
A student’s status as a dependent student or independent student can affect the student’s eligibility for need-based student aid. Sometimes, students can receive more financial aid if they qualify for independent student status. Dependent students are required to report parent financial information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), while independent students are not.
The FAFSA asks more than a dozen questions to determine whether the student is a dependent student or an independent student. Students who answer “yes” to any of the 13 dependency status questions on the FAFSA are considered to be independent students, otherwise they are dependent students.
The online FAFSA includes intelligent skip logic. If the student answers “yes” to one of the dependency status questions, the FAFSA may skip the remaining dependency status questions.
Current criteria for independent student status include:
- The student is age 24 as of December 31 of the award year.
- The student is married as of the date the FAFSA is filed.
- The student will be in graduate school or professional school at the start of the academic year and seeking a graduate or professional degree (e.g., Master’s degree, M.B.A., M.S.W., Ph.D., M.D., J.D., L.L.B., etc.)
- The student has one or more children (including unborn children who will be born during the award year) who receive more than half of their support from the student, as opposed to the student’s parents.
- The student has other dependents who live with the student and receive more than half of their support from the student.
- The student is an active duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces for purposes other than training.
- The student is a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces. The student must have served at least one day on active duty (including for basic training) and been discharged under any condition other than “Dishonorable.” The character of service appears in Box 24 of the DD-214. Eligible discharge statuses include Honorable, Under Honorable Conditions (General), Under Other Than Honorable Conditions, Bad Conduct and Uncharacterized. This is different than the veteran status for VA benefits. ROTC students are not considered veterans.
- After reaching age 13, the student was an orphan, in foster care or a ward of the court. A student who is or was incarcerated is not considered a ward of the court. A student who is an orphan, in foster care or ward of the court at any point after reaching age 13 is considered independent, even if the student is subsequently adopted or is no longer in foster care when the FAFSA is filed. A student who is adopted prior to reaching age 13 is not considered to be an orphan on the FAFSA, unless the adoptive parents die after the student reaches age 13.
- The student is in a court-ordered emancipated minor prior to reaching the age of majority. Emancipation as part of a divorce decree, in connection with the end of child support obligations, does not make the student an emancipated minor because the emancipation occurs upon the student reaching the age of majority, not before.
- The student is in a court-ordered legal guardianship. A legal guardianship prepared by an attorney does not count, as the legal guardianship must be determined by a court in the student’s state of legal residence at the time. The student’s parent or stepparent cannot be the guardian. Legal custody does not qualify as legal guardianship, even if court-ordered.
- The student is an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of homelessness. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth provides a form that can help verify a student’s homeless status.
College financial aid administrators are authorized to use a dependency override to change a student’s dependency status from dependent to independent, but only in unusual circumstances.
A student cannot be “declared independent” by his or her parents, even if the student is financially self-sufficient and is not claimed as an exemption on the parent’s federal income tax returns.
If the student’s parents refuse to complete the FAFSA and have cut off all financial support of the student, the student will still be considered a dependent student. The most a student can receive in such a situation is unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans.