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Can a Dependent Student File the FAFSA as Independent if the Student's Parents Don't File Federal Income Tax Returns?

Mark Kantrowitz

January 02, 2012

The next several Ask Kantro columns will answer questions about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA may be filed starting on January 1. The FAFSA is used to apply for student financial aid from the federal and state governments and from most colleges and universities for the award year that runs from July 1 to June 30.

Families should file the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 because some forms of student financial aid have very early deadlines. For example, Oregon and Connecticut have deadlines in early and mid-February and a dozen states have deadlines in March. Six states — Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont — offer state aid on a first-come, first-served basis. Some colleges have two deadlines for awarding their own financial aid funds, with students who apply by the earlier “preferred” or “priority” deadline having access to a larger pool of funds.

The FAFSA may not be filed before January 1 because some of the form’s questions are based on information from federal income tax returns from the previous tax year. However, families should not wait until they’ve filed their federal income tax returns to file the FAFSA. Families who are unable to complete their federal income tax returns early can base the FAFSA on information from the last pay stub(s) of the year and/or W-2 and 1099 statements. Applicants will have an opportunity to correct any errors later. It is also a good idea to review the previous year’s federal income tax returns because this may may help identify any types of income or exclusions from income that may have been overlooked.

I’m 22 years old, and I don’t receive any financial aid. I’ve tried to fill out the FAFSA but I have an obstacle. I claim myself and no one else on my taxes. No one claims me. My mom does not fill out a tax return because she doesn’t get a W-2. (She works as a bartender at a very small bar and is paid in cash only.) I still live at home with her, but other than that I don’t get any financial help from her. Am I able to fill out a FAFSA without providing any of her information, or do I have to wait until I’m 24? — Angela T.

If a student is considered to be a dependent student, the student’s parents must complete the FAFSA. The parents must also supply copies of their federal income tax returns if requested by the college financial aid administrator.

If the student is considered to be an independent student, parental information is not required on the FAFSA.

In most cases a student who is under age 24 as of December 31 of the academic year is considered to be a dependent student, regardless of whether the student is claimed as an exemption on the parent’s federal income tax return and regardless of whether the student is financially self-sufficient. The main exceptions are when the student is married, a graduate student, a veteran or active duty member of the US Armed Forces or an orphan, or when the student has a dependent other than a spouse.

When there are unusual circumstances, a student can appeal to the college financial aid administrator for a dependency override. Unusual circumstances do not, however, include any of the following circumstances, alone or in combination: the student is financially self-sufficient; the student’s parents do not claim the student as an exemption on their federal income tax returns; the parents refuse to complete the FAFSA; the parents refuse to supply federal income tax returns or other documentation during verification; or the parents refuse to contribute to the student’s education.


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