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Completing the FAFSA When the Student's Parents Have a Legal Separation

Mark Kantrowitz

September 12, 2011

My parents aren’t divorced but are legally separated and have been for about ten years. My mother is unable to remember where the papers for their separation are. I was wondering if I have to put my father’s information on the FAFSA even though my mother is my primary care-giver. (I spend all 365 days a year with her.) I don’t know if I’m supposed to because they aren’t technically divorced and my guidance counselor is also unsure. — Samantha V.

Divorce and a legal separation are treated the same way on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Only one parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA, and the income and asset information from the other parent is omitted. The other parent is often referred to as the noncustodial parent.

The parent with whom the student lived the most during the 12 months ending on the FAFSA application date is responsible for completing the FAFSA. If the student lived equally with both parents, then the parent with whom the child lived the most during the most recent calendar year is responsible for completing the FAFSA. It is rare for these criteria to be insufficient, since there are an odd number of days in the year. But it sometimes does happen that the parents have a perfectly even split, such as might occur in a leap year with an even number of days or a recent divorce or separation, or when the parents have reconciled and are living together but have not yet remarried. Otherwise, the parent responsible for completing the FAFSA is based on whichever parent provided more support to the student.

Although the income and assets of the noncustodial parent are not reported on the FAFSA, child support payments received by the parent who completes the FAFSA must be reported on the FAFSA. Any other support provided by the noncustodial parent to the student, such as help paying college bills, must be reported as untaxed income to the student.

Children of divorced parents often qualify for more financial aid because the need analysis is based on the finances of only one parent. If the student lives with the parent with the lower income that will also increase eligibility for need-based financial aid.

(About 250 colleges use a supplemental form, the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form, for awarding their own financial aid funds. Many of these colleges will require additional information from the noncustodial parent.)

The college financial aid administrator may ask for a copy of the divorce decree or separation agreement during verification. The financial aid administrator is entitled to ask for this information for any reason. The most common reasons for a financial aid administrator to ask for a copy of the divorce decree or separation agreement occur when there are questions concerning child support, when there are questions concerning which parent has custody of the student, or when the financial aid administrator suspects that the parents are not really divorced or separated.

If the parent can’t find the original separation agreement, perhaps a copy can be obtained from the ex-spouse. In some cases a copy of the separation agreement may have been filed with the county or the court. The attorneys who drafted the separation agreement may have kept a copy in their files. In some cases the financial aid administrator will be willing to accept copies of documentation that demonstrate that the parents have maintained separate residences, since that might be sufficient to establish an informal separation.


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