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Which parent is responsible for completing the financial aid application?

Mark Kantrowitz

January 04, 2010

I am confused about which parent’s information to include on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). My ex-husband paid child support for 7 months this year from a settlement agreement but has been unemployed for nearly two years. He is re-married. My son is 18, lives with me, and starts college next fall. This year my ex-husband gets to list my son as an exemption on his taxes, and I get to claim the exemption thereafter. I have no debt but a single mortgage on my residence. He probably has more debt. When I called the FAFSA people they said that I can use whichever parent we consider to contribute the most support regardless of where my son lives or who claims him as an exemption on their taxes. If I can get my ex-husband to cooperate, would my son qualify for more aid if my ex-husband completes the FAFSA, since he’s unemployed? — Susan W.

The information you got from the Federal Student Aid Information Center (1-800-4-FED-AID) is not entirely accurate. Since your son lives with you, you are responsible for completing the FAFSA. If your son lived with both of you equally during the past twelve months, then the parent who provided more support would be responsible for completing the FAFSA. The support test is only used as a tiebreaker. Also, support for federal student aid purposes and support for federal income tax purposes are not the same. So the parent who gets to claim him on the income tax return is irrelevant, especially in cases involving exemptions allocated by a multiple support agreement or divorce decree.

Colleges can and will request a copy of the divorce decree to verify responsibility for completing the FAFSA and child support obligations.

If your son lived with both of you more or less equally, there is some flexibility in determining which parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA to the extent that you have control over the living arrangements and/or support. A day plus or minus could make a big difference. Likewise, support can be manipulated. Generally, if you can control which parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA, the child will get more financial aid if the parent with the lower income (including the income of that parent’s spouse, if the parent remarried) is responsible for completing the FAFSA.

Whenever you call 1-800-4-FED-AID for information about the FAFSA, it is a good idea to write down the name of the person who answered the call. The Federal Student Aid Information Center does a good job of training the staff who answer the phones, but sometimes new staff give inaccurate or even bizarre answers. (If the person who answered the phone seems unsure, sometimes it helps to call back to see if someone else gives you a different answer.)

Most consumer debt is ignored on the FAFSA. Debt that is secured by a reportable asset, such as a margin loan on a brokerage account, is subtracted from the value of the asset. A mortgage on your principal place of residence is ignored because your home is not reported on the FAFSA.

My son will be attending college this fall. I have been divorced from his father for 16 years and I have not received any child support in over 5 years. My ex-husband lost his job and has been almost homeless ever since. In addition, he has not filed taxes during the past 5 years as well. I remarried 6 years ago and my husband and I support my son entirely. The FAFSA asks for both parents information (as well as step-parents). Should I include my ex-husband’s information on the form (not sure if it’s actually required) or would it be more beneficial to omit his information? — Patricia L.

Since your son lives with you, you are responsible for completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your ex-husband’s information is not reported on the FAFSA. Your current husband’s information, however, is reported on the FAFSA.


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