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How Do I Become Independent on the FAFSA If I Am Under Age 24?

Mark Kantrowitz

April 18, 2011

If my son applies for public assistance and does his own financial aid, will he be able to apply as independent next year? In addition, (assuming he’s able to) would I be able to claim him on my income tax returns this year? He is 19 years old. My goal is to get him as much financial aid as possible. I just want to do it the right way. — Tanya H.

I am a freshman college student who is worried about the amount of financial aid I will receive next year. I am claiming myself on taxes this year and figured I would not need to supply my parents tax information on FAFSA. My parents are not helping pay for my college education and are not supporting me as their dependent any longer. Is this true? Is there a way that I can supply only my tax information since my parents’ tax information is no longer relevant? — Kristin T.

Students who are dependent for federal student aid purposes must supply parent information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students who are independent do not have to supply their parents’ information and often qualify for more student financial aid as a result. But students cannot choose to file as independent. There is a statutory definition that determines which students are considered independent. Any student who is not independent under the statutory definition is considered dependent. Most students who are under age 24 as of December 31 of the award year will be considered dependent.

Undergraduate students who are under age 24 as of December 31 of the award year are considered to be dependent for federal student aid purposes unless they are married, have dependents other than a spouse, are an orphan, are a veteran or active duty member of the US Armed Forces or satisfy other very limited criteria. If a student who is under age 24 doesn’t satisfy one of these criteria, the odds of being considered independent are very slim.

Dependency status for federal student aid purposes is not the same as dependency status for federal income tax purposes. Students cannot qualify as independent merely by claiming themselves as an exemption on their own federal income tax returns, not even if they are no longer supported by their parents.

Based on data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), only 11.3% of undergraduate students under age 24 were independent in 2007-08. (59.7% of undergraduate students were under age 24. 40.3% of undergraduate students wee independent because they were age 24 or over and 6.7% of undergraduate students were independent because of reasons other than age.) Of undergraduate students under age 24, 6.6% were independent because they have legal dependents other than a spouse, 3.8% because they were married, 1.1% because they are orphans, 0.5% because they were veterans of the US Armed Forces, 0.3% because they were on active duty with the US Armed Forces and 0.9% because the college financial aid administrator granted a dependency override due to unusual circumstances. (Only 0.5% of all undergraduate students are independent because of a dependency override.) These figures sum to more than 11.3% because about a sixth of these students were independent for two or more reasons, mostly because the students were married and also had legal dependents other than a spouse.

Colleges will not grant a dependency override because the parents refuse to contribute to the student’s education, because the parents refuse to file the FAFSA or complete verification, because the parents do not claim the student as a dependent on their federal income tax returns or because the student is totally self-sufficient. None of these reasons, not even in combination, is sufficient justification for a dependency override. Unusual circumstances that may merit a dependency override, subject to a case-by-case review by and the professional judgment of the college financial aid administrator, include an abusive family environment (e.g., court protection from abuse orders against the parents), abandonment by the parents, or the incarceration, hospitalization or institutionalization of both parents.


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