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
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.