The FAFSA, Independent Students, and How Dependency Status Affects Your Aid

The FAFSA, Independent Students, and How Dependency Status Affects Your Aid

Anyone heading to college should fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to put themselves in the running for financial aid. The amount of financial aid you receive is based on a number of factors, one of which is your dependency status. If you have FAFSA independent student status, you could potentially score more aid than a dependent student.

Here’s what you need to know before choosing your dependency status on the FAFSA:

FAFSA for independent students and dependent students: Why your status is important

The federal student aid program distributes grants, scholarships and federal student loans based on the information you provide on the FAFSA.

Your dependency status can affect how much aid you receive. The government assumes that dependent students have the support of their parents. Because of this, dependent students and their families are sometimes expected to cover more of their school’s cost, while independent students might get more aid and grants.

Your status also changes how you complete the financial aid application. Depending on whether you complete the FAFSA as an independent or dependent student, you will be asked to provide different information.

If you’re a dependent student, for example, you will need to include information about your parent or guardian’s financial situation. Providing that information doesn’t mean your family has to pay for your schooling; the government asks for it to get a better idea of your available resources.

If you’re an independent student, you can enter just your information and skip the parent section.

When to file your FAFSA as an independent student

Filing the FAFSA as an independent student doesn’t depend on how close you are to your parents. Instead, there are 10 questions from Federal Student Aid which you can answer to decide what dependency status you should use.

  1. Will you be 24 or older by January 1 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid? For example, if you plan to start school in August 2020 for the 2020–2021 school year, will you be 24 by January 1, 2020 (i.e., were you born before January 1, 1997)?
  2. Are you married or separated but not divorced?
  3. Will you be working toward a master’s or doctorate degree (such as M.A., MBA, M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.)?
  4. Do you have children who receive more than half of their support from you?
  5. Do you have dependents (other than children or a spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you?
  6. Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?
  7. Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?
  8. At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?
  9. Are you an emancipated minor or are you in a legal guardianship as determined by a court?
  10. Are you an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

If you answer “no” to all of these questions, you are likely a dependent student and will have to provide your parents’ income on the FAFSA. If you say “yes” to one or more, you might be an independent student on the FAFSA and can enter just your income on the application.

Completing the FAFSA as an independent isn’t something you should decide to do on a whim; the rules around dependency status are strict. Answering with incorrect information might result in less aid than you need.

How to prove your FAFSA independent student status

If you’re declaring yourself as an independent student on the FAFSA, the government might require you to provide proof of your status.

The school financial aid office will review the information you provided. If you are eligible for only unsubsidized loans, you do not need to go through verification. However, if you are eligible for both unsubsidized and subsidized loans, the school has to confirm your status.

If you have to verify your information, your school will send you a letter detailing what documents you need to provide, what the deadline is and what the outcome might be if you cannot show proof.

You might be asked to provide extra documentation about the following factors:

  • Tax information: If there are concerns about your adjusted gross income, you might be asked to provide a copy of your tax returns.
  • Homelessness: You could be asked to provide the name or number of a homeless youth liaison or Department of Housing and Urban Development provider.
  • Foster care: You will likely need to submit the name of the social worker who managed your case.

Once the school is satisfied with the information you provided, they will complete a verification form and submit it to the Department of Education. Based on your situation, your financial aid counselor might adjust how much aid you will receive.

What to do if you have no contact with your parents

Although the government tries to set clear guidelines around the FAFSA’s dependency status, some situations fall into a distinct gray area. For example, if you left home because of an abusive environment or are completely estranged from your parents, you might need to take extra steps.

The Higher Education Act allows financial aid administrators to override the system on a case-by-case basis if there are special circumstances.

To do so, complete and submit the FAFSA with just your information. After doing this, you won’t find out your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) right away. Instead, you’ll need to contact the school’s financial aid office to explain your extenuating circumstance.

The financial aid office will review your information. They might ask for proof of your situation, such as legal documents, letters from a counselor or a note from a social worker. After reviewing your application, the administrator will decide whether to override your status and label you as an independent.

Why filing the FAFSA is essential

Filing the FAFSA is an essential first step toward going to college. But in some situations, completing it can be especially complex.

Your status as a FAFSA independent student can require extra documentation and discussions with the financial aid office. Being prepared ahead of time can streamline the process and help you get the assistance you need.

If you need help completing the FAFSA, this guide can answer all of your questions.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this report.

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