Which parent is responsible for completing the financial aid application?

Mark Kantrowitz

January 04, 2010

Which parent is responsible for completing the financial aid application?

I am confused about which parent’s information to include on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). My ex-husband paid child support for 7 months this year from a settlement agreement but has been unemployed for nearly two years. He is re-married. My son is 18, lives with me, and starts college next fall. This year my ex-husband gets to list my son as an exemption on his taxes, and I get to claim the exemption thereafter. I have no debt but a single mortgage on my residence. He probably has more debt. When I called the FAFSA people they said that I can use whichever parent we consider to contribute the most support regardless of where my son lives or who claims him as an exemption on their taxes. If I can get my ex-husband to cooperate, would my son qualify for more aid if my ex-husband completes the FAFSA, since he’s unemployed? — Susan W.

The information you got from the Federal Student Aid Information Center (1-800-4-FED-AID) is not entirely accurate. Since your son lives with you, you are responsible for completing the FAFSA. If your son lived with both of you equally during the past twelve months, then the parent who provided more support would be responsible for completing the FAFSA. The support test is only used as a tiebreaker. Also, support for federal student aid purposes and support for federal income tax purposes are not the same. So the parent who gets to claim him on the income tax return is irrelevant, especially in cases involving exemptions allocated by a multiple support agreement or divorce decree.

Colleges can and will request a copy of the divorce decree to verify responsibility for completing the FAFSA and child support obligations.

If your son lived with both of you more or less equally, there is some flexibility in determining which parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA to the extent that you have control over the living arrangements and/or support. A day plus or minus could make a big difference. Likewise, support can be manipulated. Generally, if you can control which parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA, the child will get more financial aid if the parent with the lower income (including the income of that parent’s spouse, if the parent remarried) is responsible for completing the FAFSA.

Whenever you call 1-800-4-FED-AID for information about the FAFSA, it is a good idea to write down the name of the person who answered the call. The Federal Student Aid Information Center does a good job of training the staff who answer the phones, but sometimes new staff give inaccurate or even bizarre answers. (If the person who answered the phone seems unsure, sometimes it helps to call back to see if someone else gives you a different answer.)

Most consumer debt is ignored on the FAFSA. Debt that is secured by a reportable asset, such as a margin loan on a brokerage account, is subtracted from the value of the asset. A mortgage on your principal place of residence is ignored because your home is not reported on the FAFSA.

My son will be attending college this fall. I have been divorced from his father for 16 years and I have not received any child support in over 5 years. My ex-husband lost his job and has been almost homeless ever since. In addition, he has not filed taxes during the past 5 years as well. I remarried 6 years ago and my husband and I support my son entirely. The FAFSA asks for both parents information (as well as step-parents). Should I include my ex-husband’s information on the form (not sure if it’s actually required) or would it be more beneficial to omit his information? — Patricia L.

Since your son lives with you, you are responsible for completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your ex-husband’s information is not reported on the FAFSA. Your current husband’s information, however, is reported on the FAFSA.

I recently enrolled in a community college. I am a displaced housewife, mother of two children and a domestic violence survivor. I was laid off from my part-time job a few months ago. The Student Aid Report (SAR) declared that I do not qualify for financial aid based on my husband’s salary last year. My children and I are living on the child support, $200 alimony and food stamps. If I cannot find aid I will have to quit before I really even get started. I was denied my education when I was living with my husband. And now I have no idea what to do. — Natalie H.

If you filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as separated or divorced, your husband’s income should not have been reported on the FAFSA. You do not need to have a legal separation to qualify as separated for federal student aid purposes. An informal separation is sufficient, so long as you do not cohabit with your husband. It is possible that your own income may have caused you to be ineligible for the Pell Grant.

Ask the financial aid office at your college for a professional judgment review. Provide them with documentation of your job loss, such as the layoff notice or recent (within 90 days) documentation of the receipt of unemployment benefits. Also provide them with documentation of the domestic violence, such as a letter from a social worker or the director of a women’s shelter who is familiar with your situation, or copies of police reports or court protection from abuse orders. The financial aid office can adjust the income figures on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to reflect your current income instead of last year’s income and to exclude your husband’s income.

I receive child support currently but will not when my daughter goes to school. If I report the child support on the FAFSA we do not qualify for much help, without it we do. I did not put any of the money aside for college (sorry, had to eat). Do I have to claim the child support? I also only get support for one child but support two (one already in college). — Mary Ann B.

The information on the FAFSA is based on the prior tax year. You have to report the child support. If you fail to report it, the college will consider it to be conflicting information that must be resolved before aid can be disbursed. (They will know that you are divorced and the age of your child and so will question the failure to report the receipt of child support payments.) As I note in the answer to the last question of the November 23, 2009 Ask Kantro column, you can ask the college financial aid administrator to make an adjustment because of the impending discontinuation of child support. However, if you fail to report the child support, the college financial aid administrator will be less willing to accommodate your request. Honesty is always the best policy.

Incidentally, when you have two children in college at the same time, you should experience a significant increase in each child’s financial aid eligibility. The parental contribution portion of the expected family contribution (EFC) is divided by the number of children in college.

I am currently in a sticky situation. My parents have been divorced for 10 years. My dad is disabled and unemployed. My mom is remarried. I live with my mom and my step-dad the entire year. My step-dad, who claims me on his taxes, makes a lot of money (more than $150,000). Unfortunately he will not be contributing at all to my college fund. My real dad will be contributing a little (about $500). When I fill out the FAFSA, do I need to include my step-dad or my real dad? Both will contribute very little. If I need to include my step-dad, my EFC will be considerably less because of the large amount of money he makes, even though he will contribute nothing. What should I do? I look like a little rich kid when in actuality, I only have help from my mom, who already has to deal with my three siblings. — Chris G.

Since you live with your mother the entire year, your mother is responsible for completing the FAFSA. Since she has remarried, your step-father’s financial information must be reported on the FAFSA, per section 475(f)(3) of the Higher Education Act of 1965. (Your biological father’s information is not reported.) Your step-father’s refusal to contribute to your education is irrelevant. Likewise, a prenuptial agreement has no impact on this requirement. Your step-father’s information would still be required on the FAFSA even if he didn’t claim you as an exemption on his income tax return.

This means you will qualify for very little need-based financial aid, as your financial need will be based on your step-father’s income.

I have never lived with my biological father and he does nothing for me, especially not child support. My mother does not work and she is now separated from my stepfather who is retired. How would my mother and I deal with the FAFSA and scholarships pertaining to these things? We are really confused and can’t afford college without maximum help. — Shanna B.

Since you live with your mother, she is responsible for completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your biological father’s information is not reported on the FAFSA. Your stepfather’s information is only required while he is married to your mother. Since he is separated from your mother, his information is not reported on the FAFSA. (The separation does not need to be a legal separation. An informal separation is sufficient, so long as your mother and stepfather do not live together.)

Some colleges may require information from your biological father and/or your stepfather. This is for awarding their own financial aid funds. It does not affect eligibility for federal and state student financial aid.

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