Ask Cappex: Should I File the FAFSA if My Parents are Separated?

In Paying for College on Apr 26, 2016

Our college expert Mark Kantrowitz answers your questions about college and financial aid. 

Q: My parents are separated and make a good amount of money separately, but can't afford to cover my college costs. Since they make a higher-than-average amount of money but I won't be able to fully afford college, will the FAFSA help me at all?

A: When a dependent student’s biological/adoptive parents are divorced or separated and do not live together, only one parent is responsible for completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Since only one parent’s information is reported on the FAFSA, this can sometimes help the student qualify for more financial aid.

The parent who is responsible for completing the FAFSA is called the custodial parent. This is not necessarily the same as the parent who has legal custody of the student. Rather, it is the parent with whom the student lived the most during the 12 months ending on the date the FAFSA is filed.

Usually this definition clearly identifies the custodial parent, since there are an odd number of days in the year. But sometimes the student lived with both parents equally. This can happen during a leap year or during a recent divorce or separation when there are an even number of days and the parents share equal custody. (One must count the number of nights with each parent according to the terms of the divorce decree or child custody agreement.)

If the student lived equally with both parents, then the parent who provided more financial support to the student during the 12-month period (or, failing that, the most recent calendar year during which the parents provided financial support).

Otherwise, the financial aid office gets to decide which parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA, and they will most often choose the parent with the greater income.

If the parents are divorced or separated, but live together, both parents are required to complete the FAFSA.

Note that the definition of separation on the FAFSA includes not just a legal separation, but also an informal separation, sometimes called a trial separation. Parents in an informal separation cannot live together.

If the parent who completes the FAFSA has remarried, the stepparent’s income and assets must be reported on the FAFSA, regardless of any prenuptial agreements. The stepparent’s children from previous marriages may be included in household size (and, if they are enrolled in college, in the number of children in college) if the stepparent provides more than half of their support, even if they don’t live with the stepparent. 

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