If a Student's Parents Are Not Married, How Does the Student Complete the FAFSA?

Mark Kantrowitz

November 28, 2011

I live with my mother and my step-father but they are not married. They keep their finances separate and, other than helping my mom to pay for the house I live in, he does not help me out financially. Do I still have to include him on my FAFSA? — Emily L.

The first step in addressing non-traditional family structures is to understand the actual biological and legal (marital) relationships. People sometimes use the terms “step-father”, “step-mother”, “father” and “mother” in a manner that is not consistent with the legal or biological connection.

The definition of parent used by the FAFSA includes biological and adoptive parents. If the parents are divorced, only one biological or adoptive parent is considered a parent for federal student aid purposes. This is the parent with whom the student lived the most during the 12 months ending on the FAFSA application date, or failing that, the parent who provided the student with the most support. (One parent claiming the student as an exemption on their federal income tax return is irrelevant, as the IRS and US Department of Education use different definitions of support.) If this parent has remarried, the step-parent is counted as a parent for as long as he or she is married to the parent responsible for completing the FAFSA.

If the student’s mother and her boyfriend really aren’t married (i.e., he isn’t legally the student’s step-father), then the student does not include him on her FAFSA. (If the student’s mother provides more than half the step-father’s support, however, then he would be counted in household size, but his income and assets would not be reported on the FAFSA.) Any cash support the step-father provides to the student would be reported as untaxed income on the FAFSA. Any cash support the step-father provides to the mother is not reported on the FAFSA. The Application and Verification Guide defines cash support to a student as including “money, gifts, and loans, plus housing, food, clothing, car payments or expenses, medical and dental care, college costs, and any money paid to someone else on his behalf.”

If the step-father is the student’s biological or adoptive father, but the student’s parents have never married, the situation is treated as though the student’s parents are divorced. (See, for example, question Q9 from Dear Colleague Letter GEN-05-16.) The parent responsible for completing the FAFSA is the one with whom the student lived the most during the 12 months ending on the FAFSA application date. If the student lived with neither parent more, then the determination is based on whichever parent provided more support.

However, it is possible that the student’s parents are legally married even if they haven’t been formally married in a religious establishment. If the parents live in a common law marriage state and fulfilled the requirements for a common law marriage, they may actually be married and the FAFSA should be completed as though they are married.

If the student’s mother and her boyfriend are married (i.e., he legally is the student’s step-father), then the student does include him on her FAFSA. Prenuptial agreements are irrelevant, as is keeping finances separate and filing separate returns. A prenuptial agreement does not trump federal law, which requires listing the income and assets of the step-parent, in section 475(f) of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

Note that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defines marriage for federal purposes, including the FAFSA, as a union between husband and wife. Same-sex marriage is not recognized as married on the FAFSA. If a student has two legal same-sex parents, which can occur through adoption or other means, the student must follow the rules for divorced parents. Only one parent will be responsible for completing the FAFSA.

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