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Overcoming family FAFSA barriers

Sienna Kossman

Filling out the U.S. Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a tedious process and can make it feel like income tax season all over again, but it’s an important chore.

To qualify for a small portion of the government’s $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study funds, students and their parents have to disclose extensive personal financial details. The complex task of getting together all the pieces of financial information needed to complete a FAFSA application is hard enough for anyone, but it can become nearly impossible when there are special family circumstances, such as a parent’s death or incarceration.

However, the good news is students and their families in such situations can still be able to file a FAFSA and qualify for aid, but application requirements and outcomes may vary.

How special family circumstances affect FAFSA filing

What if a student’s parents are divorced?

The parent who the student has lived with the most over the past 12 months is responsible for filing their financial information for FAFSA. If the living situation is more evenly split or involves a contributing stepparent, more information will be needed.

“If [the student] did not live with one parent more than the other, give answers about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months or during the most recent year that [the student] actually received support from a parent,” Shawna Wells-Booth, director of financial aid at Beacon College in Florida, told the Huffington Post. “If this parent is remarried as of today, answer the questions about that parent and stepparent.”

What if one or more of a student’s parents are deceased?

Students with a deceased parent should provide only the surviving parent’s information on their FAFSA application, even if the deceased parent was alive for a portion of the previous year. If the surviving parent is remarried, information from the biological and stepparent will be needed.

If both parents are deceased, and the student is living with a legal guardian who has not formally adopted him or her, the student will likely qualify as an independent FAFSA filer and will only need to provide his or her financial information on the application.

What if the student is already supporting themselves financially?

Students who are over the age of 18 and already living on their own, married, served in the military or have dependent children of their own may be allowed to file the FAFSA using only their own financial information and their spouse’s, if applicable.

There are a number of situations that may qualify someone as an independent FAFSA filer, so if you’re a student questioning your filing status, check out this Department of Education infographic to help determine your course of action.

What if a student’s parents refuse to provide information for a FAFSA application?

Unfortunately, a student can’t file a FAFSA as an independent just because his or her parents are refusing to help. However, a student can file as a dependent and note that they are unable to provide parents’ information and submit their application for review, according to the Federal Student Aid department.

Once the application is submitted, it will be up to the student’s college financial aid office to determine if he or she will be eligible for an unsubsidized loan, which will be the only financial aid offered if the student is approved. The financial aid office may need additional supporting documents, such as a letter from the student’s parents acknowledging their refusal, to help make their decision.

What if parent financial information is not available for other reasons not listed above?

The following specific situations may qualify a student to file his or her FAFSA without parent information, despite technically qualifying as a dependent:

  • Parents are incarcerated.
  • Student left home due to an abusive environment.
  • Parent whereabouts are unknown and no contact can be made, but student has not been adopted.
  • Student is between the ages of 21 and 24 and is either homeless or self-supporting at the risk of being homeless.

The Department of Education will take these things into account, but again, the student’s prospective college financial aid office will have to independently evaluate the situation and may need more evidence supporting the student’s claim before issuing any financial aid.

Still need more FAFSA help?

Completing a FAFSA application — which has more than 100 questions — can be overwhelming, especially if one or more of any of the above circumstances come into play, but students and their parents or guardians don’t have to navigate the application on their own.

The U.S. Department of Education offers a handful of free resources to assist students and parents with the FAFSA filling process, starting with a downloadable financial aid toolkit.

Individual colleges, cities or even high schools may also offer FAFSA education courses or Q&A sessions for anyone in the surrounding area who needs them. Check with your schools, universities and local government centers to find out what’s available.

Note: The FAFSA application for the upcoming school year (2015-2016) opened January 1 and students should complete the application as soon as possible. The absolute deadline for FAFSA submissions is June 30, but many states have much earlier deadlines — most of which fall between March and April — and distribute aid on a first-come-first-serve basis. Check here for state specifics.

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