Both of my daughters' parents have re-married. Whose income is
counted for financial aid? Just biological parents or their spouses
too? Does primary parent fill out the paperwork or the parent with the
lowest (or highest) income?
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When a student's biological/adoptive parents are divorced, only one of
the two parents is responsible for completing the Free Application for
Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Both may be required to complete the
CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form, a form used by about 250 mostly
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The parent who is responsible for completing the FAFSA is often
referred to as the custodial parent
. This is not necessarily
the same as the parent who has legal custody
student. The custodial parent is the parent with whom the student
lived the most during the 12 months ending on the FAFSA application
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It is possible that the student lived with neither parent more than
the other. This is rare, since there are an odd number of days in the
year. However, it can happen during a leap year or a recent divorce,
especially if the parents share joint custody. It can also happen when
the student is living with neither parent. For example, the student might
be living with a relative other than the parents or the student might be
living at school for the entire year.
If the student lived with neither parent more, the custodial parent is
the parent who provided more support to the student during the
12-month period ending on the FAFSA application date (or the most
recent calendar year during which support was received if that does
not distinguish the parents). Multiple support agreements, in which
the parents trade off who claims the student as an exemption on their
federal income tax returns, are irrelevant since the definition of
support in the Higher Education Act of 1965 differs from the
definition used by the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.
If neither parent provided more support, the family should consult
with the financial aid administrator at the college before filing the
FAFSA. In most cases the financial aid administrator will require the
parent with the greater income to complete the FAFSA.
Divorced parents may have some flexibility in determining the
custodial parent by controlling the student's living
arrangements. Generally, need-based financial aid will be greater if
the custodial parent is the parent with the lower income. However,
college financial aid administrators will question the arrangement if
the student attended secondary school in a school district that does
not match the custodial parent's address. The college financial aid
administrator may ask for a copy of the divorce decree or separation
agreement to resolve the conflicting information. So it is generally a
good idea to seek a court modification to the custody agreement
corresponding to the actual living arrangements.
If the parent responsible for completing the FAFSA has remarried, then
the step-parent's financial information must also be reported on the
FAFSA. Prenuptial agreements are irrelevant, as the requirement to
include step-parent information is established by federal law (section
475(f)(3) of the Higher Education Act of 1965).
Approximately 250 colleges require families to file a supplemental
form called the CSS Financial Aid PROFILE in addition to the
FAFSA. The PROFILE is used to apply for financial aid from the
college's own funds. The rules for determining the parent responsible
for completing the PROFILE are similar to the rules for the
FAFSA. However, the non-custodial parent is require to complete a
Non-Custodial Parent CSS PROFILE form (NCP). Potentially all four
parents could be required to supply financial information on the
PROFILE and Non-Custodial PROFILE forms, if both biological/adoptive
parents have remarried.
Sometimes divorced parents are unwilling to complete the Non-Custodial
PROFILE form or even the FAFSA because they fear that their ex-spouse
will be able to see their income and asset information. The Family
Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits revealing parent
financial information to the student. Colleges also cannot reveal
parent financial information to anybody other than the parent who
provided the information.