Why do we have to file the FAFSA when my daughter supports herself?
My daughter has not lived with me or my husband for a year and a
half while she’s been attending college. We do not support her
financially, we do not pay for her education nor do we even send her
money. She is completely self-sufficient, a fact of which we are very proud to
claim! We will not be claiming her as a dependent on our taxes this
year because that is a true reflection of what occurred.
Would we still need to file the FAFSA for her and if so, why?
— Jennifer M.
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Who has a greater responsibility for helping a student pay for
college: the student's parents or the federal government?
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Federal law assumes that the parents have the primary responsibility
for paying for their children's college education. The federal
government provides grants and other forms of college support only
when the parents are incapable of paying for college, not when the
parents are unwilling to pay for college.
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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) distinguishes
between students who are dependent and students who are
independent. Parents of a dependent student are required to submit
their financial and demographic information on the FAFSA. Parents of
an independent student are not required to complete the FAFSA.
The definition of a dependent student for federal student aid purposes
is different than the definition used on federal income tax
returns. The definition of a dependent on the federal income tax
return is defined by the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, while the
definition for federal student aid purposes is defined by the Higher
Education Act of 1965. Whether the parents claim the student as a
dependent on their income tax returns is irrelevant to the student's
status as a dependent for federal student aid purposes.
Before 1992, a student who was self-sufficient for two years was
considered an independent student for federal student aid
purposes. But this definition was prone to abuse and manipulation, so
Congress changed the definition starting with the 1992-93 academic
year. The new definition established a specific set of criteria for a
student to be considered independent.
The current criteria for independent student status include whether
the student is age 24 or older as of December 31 of the academic
year. A student can also be independent by being married, having a dependent
other than a spouse, being a veteran of the US Armed Forces, serving
on active duty in the Armed Forces for other than training purposes,
having been an orphan or in foster care or a ward of the court at any
time after reaching age 13 or older, being an emancipated minor or in
a court-ordered legal guardianship prior to reaching the age of
majority, or being a homeless unaccompanied youth. Graduate and
professional students are also considered independent. All other
students are considered to be dependent.
Most unmarried freshmen who are under age 24 and who are not veterans
are dependent under this definition.
College financial aid administrators may perform a dependency override
to grant independent student status to an otherwise dependent student,
but only in unusual circumstances. Unusual circumstances can include
an abusive family environment (e.g., as evidenced by court protection
from abuse orders against both parents) or when both parents are
incarcerated, institutionalized or otherwise incapacitated. A student
supporting herself is not considered an unusual circumstance.
The US Department of Education has published guidance in the
Application and Verification Guide
that indicates that college
financial aid administrators may not grant a dependency override just
because the student is self-sufficient, just because the parents do
not claim the student as a dependent on their income tax returns, just
because the parents refuse to contribute to the student's education or
just because the parents refuse to complete the FAFSA or verification.
None of these scenarios, alone or in combination, is sufficient
justification for a dependency override.
If parents of a dependent student refuse to complete the FAFSA, the
student will not qualify for federal student aid. (A dependent student
whose parents have cut off all support may qualify for unsubsidized
Stafford loans, but only at the dependent student limits. The student
will not qualify for other federal education loans, federal grants or
federal work-study.) The student may also be ineligible for grants
from other sources, as most colleges follow the federal requirements.