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How Does Income Tax Filing Status Affect Student Aid?

Mark Kantrowitz

March 22, 2010

My married parents want to file their income tax returns as married filing separately. If the parent with the lower income claims me as a dependent, does that mean that I will receive more financial aid than I would if the other parent (with higher income) claimed me as a dependent? — Ilya S.

Although you indicated that your parents are married, it is still possible for them to have an informal separation, so I will address all possibilities in my response to your question.

Unless your parents are divorced or separated, it does not matter whether they file their income tax returns as married filing jointly or married filing separately. Both incomes must be reported on the FAFSA.

Tax filing status does not affect who completes the FAFSA. The parents have to actually be divorced or separated, not just filing separate returns, for only one parent to be responsible for completing the FAFSA.

If your parents are divorced, have a legal separation or have an informal separation (which precludes them living at the same address), then the parent with whom you lived the most during the previous twelve months will complete the FAFSA. If you lived with them equally, the parent who provided more support during the past twelve months would be responsible for completing the FAFSA. Otherwise, the parent who completes the FAFSA will be based on the most recent calendar year during which either parent provided more support. Who claims you as a dependent on their income tax returns is usually irrelevant.

I am trying to consolidate my student loans, and I was advised that I should file my income tax return as married filing separately in order to take advantage of the income-based repayment program and that would enable me to get a lower pay back amount and save money over the following years. Is this true? — Arlene G.

The technical amendments for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-153) added a special rule for married borrowers who file separate federal income tax returns. For these borrowers the monthly payment under the income-based repayment plan is based solely on the borrower’s student loan debt and adjusted gross income. The debt and income of the borrower’s spouse are ignored. This can reduce the monthly loan payment. It also sometimes yields significant savings, especially if the borrower qualifies for public service loan forgiveness.

This is the only situation where there is a student aid benefit to filing separate returns. In most other cases taxpayers who file separate returns are ineligible for education tax benefits. For example, if you file a separate return you will not be eligible for the student loan interest deduction. Taxpayers who file separate returns are also ineligible for the Hope Scholarship and Lifetime Learning tax credits.


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