Is an Emancipated Child Considered an Independent Student?

Mark Kantrowitz

February 14, 2011

I am a single parent of three children. One is a junior in college, the middle child will be attending college next year. I have always completed the FAFSA for my oldest daughter, claiming her as my dependent. Her father and and I have split the cost of out-of-pocket expenses. This past year, however, her father took me back to court to have her emancipated so that he no longer has to pay child support for her. He is still being ordered by the court to split the uncovered college expenses with me. Do I have my daughter complete her own FAFSA this year, now that she has been emancipated by the court? On my son’s FAFSA, do I still claim that there will be two children in college at the same time next year? — Andrea T.

The use of the word “emancipation” is confusing for many families. Emancipation for child support purposes is not the same as emancipation for federal student aid purposes. Emancipation means that the child is no longer considered a minor. Emancipation can occur by a child reaching the age of majority or by a court order granting the child adult status before the child reaches the age of majority. The former is often referred to as emancipation while the latter is often referred to as an emancipated minor.

When a child’s parents get divorced, child support obligations continue until the child reaches the age of majority, typically age 18 or 21. In some states this obligation will continue until the child has graduated from high school or age 19. When the child reaches the age of majority, a court order might be required to terminate child support obligation. This court order might refer to the child as emancipated, but that is not the same as an emancipated minor.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-315) established a new way for a child to be considered an independent student effective July 1, 2010 for the 2010-11 academic year, namely as an emancipated minor. The specific language added to section 480(d)(1)(C) of the Higher Education Act of 1965 reads: “is, or was immediately prior to attaining the age of majority, an emancipated minor … as determined by a court of competent jurisdiction in the individual’s State of legal residence.” Note that the statutory language refers to the student as an emancipated minor, and not merely as emancipated. An emancipated minor is a child who has not yet reached the age of majority but who has been granted adult status early by a court. (In this case the status must be granted by a court of competent jurisdiction in the child’s state of residence.) This is not the same as emancipation for child support purposes, where the child becomes emancipated by reaching the age of majority.

Since your daughter is emancipated but not an emancipated minor, she is still considered dependent for federal student aid purposes. You must still complete the FAFSA for your daughter. Since you will complete the FAFSA for your daughter, you may list both her and your son as children in college on each of their FAFSAs.

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