Must the Student's Child Live with the Student for the Student to be Independent?
Independency status and child support on the FAFSA.
By The Fastweb Team
September 12, 2017
I’m 23 and have a 4-year-old child. Last year I received independent status for my financial aid because I supported my child more than 51% of his needs. This year the financial aid office asked for the same documents as last year but told me that I couldn’t be an independent student because I didn’t have enough documented proof. I explained and provided documents showing that the mother doesn’t work and I pay $100 a week in child support. I also presented a document from the mother stating that I am the custodial parent. I also claim him as an exemption on my income tax return. In reality I pay probably 90% of his expenses. Last year the only problem was that he wasn’t living with me but I helped pay rent on the home with his mother. This year he is living with me but the financial aid office deemed that there wasn’t enough documentation showing that. I asked if the mother were to apply for this, they then told me it would have been a quick process and she would have been approved because she is the mother. Because I’m the father I have to jump through hoops. They asked me to bring a different document every week for 6 weeks before they told me I had to apply as dependent. What can I do to fix this problem? I don’t receive any money from my parents and they already paid for my education when I was 18 before I had a child and they don’t want do that again. — Jeremy B.
There are several ways for a student to be independent for federal student aid purposes. The most common ways are to be over age 24 as of December 31 of the award year, to be married, to have dependents other than a spouse, to be a graduate student, to be an orphan, to be a veteran or to be serving on active duty in the Armed Forces for other than training purposes.
To be an independent student by virtue of having a legal dependent other than a spouse, the student’s child must receive more than half of his or her support from the student. The student’s child does not need to live with the student.
Dependents other than a child must live with the student and receive more than half their support from the student for the student to be considered independent. Dependent children must receive more than half their support from the student, but do not need to live with the student for the student to be considered independent.
Confusion often arises because of ambiguity in the statutory definition. In 20 USC 1087vv(k)(2), the term “dependent of the student” is defined as “the student’s dependent children and other persons (except the student’s spouse) who live with and receive more than one-half of their support from the student and will continue to receive more than half of their support from the student during the award year.” Some people incorrectly interpret the phrase “who live with” as attaching to both “the student’s dependent children” and “other persons”. However, it is clear from the similar language in the definition of “dependent of the parent” in 20 USC 1087vv(k)(1) that the phrase “who live with” attaches only to “other persons”.
The Application and Verification Guide clarifies this by repeating the half-support requirement for both children and other persons and by not repeating the live-with requirement. The Application and Verification Guide is a source of subregulatory guidance from the US Department of Education to college financial aid administrators.
“Children and legal dependents (50 and 51). Students who have legal dependents are independent. Legal dependents comprise children (including those who will be born before the end of the award year) of the student who receive more than half their support from the student, and other persons (except a spouse) who live with and receive more than half their support from the student as of the FAFSA signing date and will continue to do so for the award year. The same criteria apply to household size.”
Even so, there is still some confusion, so further guidance explicitly states in a discussion of household size for independent students that the children do not need to live with the student.
“The student’s children, regardless of where they live, if they will receive more than half of their support from the student from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018. This includes the student’s unborn children who will be born during the award year and will receive more than half their support from the student from birth to the end of the award year. Foster children do not count in household size.”
Moreover, the guide gives a clear example in the context of a discussion of sources of support. For the purpose of the half-support requirement, support includes any cash or other assistance provided to the child from sources other than the student’s parents. This includes child support and government benefit programs, such as TANF and SNAP, not just support provided by the student. The example highlights a common scenario in which both the child’s mother and father can each be dependent by virtue of having a dependent child.
“For example, if a student who lives alone with her child receives cash from her boyfriend that amounts to more than 50% support for her child, then she would be able to count the child as a dependent and in her household size, and she would be independent. If the boyfriend is the father of the child and a student himself, then he would also be able to count the child as a dependent and in his household size, and he would be independent too.”
Sometimes front-office financial aid staff are unaware of these nuances, and insist that the child is presumed to be a dependent of the mother and that the father must rebut that presumption. They also insist that the child can be a dependent of either the mother or father, but not both. They sometimes also insist that the child must live with the father to be a dependent of the father. There is no such presumption in the statute, regulations or subregulatory guidance. The child does not need to live with the father to be a dependent of the father, and the child can be counted as a dependent of the father and also as a dependent of the mother.
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