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
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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.
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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
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
"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
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.