My husband and I separated last year and are living at separate
addresses. We have not filed for divorce yet or a formal
separation. We are considering filing our taxes as married filing
separately. I am currently a student at an online university and will
need to fill out my FAFSA soon. Although my soon to be ex-husband
makes about $75,000 a year, I work a low-income job and fully support
myself. I am wondering how married filing separately will affect my
FAFSA application this year. Do I still have to claim his income since
technically we are still married?
— C. C.
An informal separation is treated the same as a legal separation or
divorce on the FAFSA. Even though the couple is still married, the
income and assets of the ex-spouse are not reported on the FAFSA. The
ex-spouse must have left the household and be maintaining a separate
residence. If they are still living together, they are not considered
to have an informal separation.
Living in different rooms or floors in the same house does not count
as an informal separation. Likewise, maintaining a separate household
in a different state for employment purposes does not count as an
informal separation. The separation must be for an indefinite period,
not a temporary absence from the home.
College financial aid administrators may ask for proof of the
separation, such as copies of utility bills for separate residences.
A couple with an informal
separation may file their federal
income tax returns as either married filing jointly or married filing
separately. This is in contrast with a couple with a legal
separation, who cannot file their federal income tax returns with a
In certain circumstances one or both of them may be able to file as
head of household, if they are considered unmarried under IRS rules, a
qualifying person lived with them for more than half the year and they
paid for more than half the cost of keeping up a home. In most cases,
however, a couple that is still married will not qualify for head of
household status. (Head of household filing status is so error-prone
that subregulatory guidance from the US Department of Education
requires college financial aid administrators to question whether it
is the correct filing status.)
If the couple files a joint return, filing the FAFSA becomes more
difficult because the income and assets of the ex-spouse must be
omitted. This requires analyzing the income tax return to split the
income (often based on W2 statements or pay stubs, with an even split
of unearned income) and taxes. Splitting the taxes may require using a
tax table to calculate the individual taxes paid or, alternately,
dividing the taxes proportionately. Filing a joint return will often
trigger verification because the income and tax figures on the FAFSA
will not match the corresponding figures on the federal income tax
It is often much simpler if the couple files separate income tax
returns. However, filing separate returns may prevent a couple from
claiming certain education tax benefits, such as the Hope Scholarship
tax credit, Lifetime Learning tax credit, Tuition and Fees Deduction
and the Student Loan Interest Deduction.
My fiance and I live together and usually file a joint income
tax return. He doesn't make a lot of money, but because it's a joint
tax return, my fiance got rejected for financial aid because of my
income. My question to you is, we're thinking of filing our tax return
as married filing separately. Would you think that would help it
approve his financial aid?
— Judy N.
The word "fiance" means engaged to be married. An unmarried
couple cannot file income tax returns as though they are married
unless they live in one of the 16
states, hold themselves out to be married and meet the
state's other criteria to have a common law marriage. (In other words,
a common law marriage means that the couple is married and the
significant other is a spouse, not a fiance.)
Just because an unmarried couple lives together doesn't mean they can
file income tax returns as though they were married.
Likewise, a student who is engaged but not yet married is not treated
as married on the FAFSA either.
Falsely filing federal income tax returns with a marital status is
If an unmarried couple incorrectly filed their income tax returns as
married, they will need to file amended income tax returns to correct
the error. They will also need to correct the status on the FAFSA.
If a couple is married, it does not matter whether they file income
tax returns as married filing jointly or married filing separately. In
both cases the income and assets of both spouses must be reported on