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Which of the Divorced Parents Must Complete the FAFSA?

Find out how to describe your family circumstances on the FAFSA.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

October 13, 2021

FAFSA rules on separated, divorced and remarried parents.
Which of the Divorced Parents Must Complete the FAFSA?
I will be filling out the FAFSA soon for my daughter who will be attending college next fall. My question is regarding her father, who is my ex-husband. Her father does not pay child support and has not supported her financially since our divorce 5 years ago. Do I have to include his financial information, or any of his information, on the FAFSA? Also, I have remarried, and my daughter lives with me and her stepfather. Do I have to include her stepfather's information, both financial and personal, on the FAFSA? — Kari L. In your situation, you must include the stepfather’s information on your daughter’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You do not, however, need to include any personal or financial info on your ex-husband.

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When a student’s parents are divorced or separated, only the custodial parent’s information needs to be included on the FAFSA. The custodial parent is not defined as the parent who has legal custody. Rather, for the purposes of the FAFSA, it is the parent with whom the student lived with the most over the past 12 months. In this case, the custodial parent is you, and because you have remarried, your partner’s information must be included because he is a part of the household in which the student resides. There are no exceptions to this rule, not even a prenuptial agreement. This particular scenario does not apply to all similar situations. For instance, if your daughter lived with both you and your ex-husband equally, then the custodial parent would be the one that provided the most financial support in the past 12 months. Financial support includes food, clothing, housing, car payments and expenses, auto insurance, medical and dental care and insurance, college costs, money, gifts and loans.

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If your daughter has received any money from her stepfather or government benefit programs, it counts as support for your daughter. You should also be careful with any money you receive from the other parent in the form of financial support. Money given directly to your daughter will count as untaxed income for her, which is more heavily scrutinized on the FAFSA. If parents split financial support for the student equally – or if neither parent provided support – during the last 12-month period, then the custodial parent is considered the one who provided the most support during the most recent calendar year. It is pretty rare that a student lives equally and is supported equally by both parents. However, if that happens, it is up to the college’s financial aid administrator to determine which parent is considered the custodial parent. They will typically choose the parent with the greater income.

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In the event of the custodial parent’s death, the non-custodial parent becomes responsible for completing the FAFSA. If that happened, the stepparent’s financial information would no longer be required on the FAFSA, even if the student continues to live with their stepparent. However, as above, any financial support given by the stepparent would count as untaxed income for the student. If the student has had no financial support or significant contact with the non-custodial parent for an extended period of time, some colleges will enact a dependency override in order to treat the student as independent. But the scenario highlighted above is very rare. It's worth mentioning here that separation is treated the same as divorce when you’re filling out the FAFSA. The separation does not need to be a legal separation. Informal separations are considered a legitimate separation for financial aid purposes. However, colleges will require proof of a legal or informal separation. Having a parent live in a hotel room, or with friends and family, is not considered sufficient for making a case of separation. Be very careful when completing the FAFSA under these circumstances. Though it would be financial advantageous for the lower income parent to complete the application, if they are not the custodial parent, it would be considered fraud. If the college believes that you are falsifying information, they will not only withhold financial aid – but they will also have to report fraud to the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Education for further investigation. Criminal penalties for financial aid fraud include fines of up to $20,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 5 years, in addition to a return of the fraudulently-obtained student aid funds.

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