FAFSA Dependency Status Tips and Quiz

A common issue faced by students when filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is whether to file as a dependent student or as an independent student. Independent students do not need to provide parent financial information on the FAFSA, and, because of this, may qualify for more aid. However, the criteria for independent student status are strict, and often confusing. The FAFSA dependency status quiz helps students understand how to answer the dependency status questions on the FAFSA. Below the quiz is a set of tips that explain some of the tougher dependency status questions.

FAFSA Dependency Quiz

Dependent vs. Independent:
What's your Status?

Are you or will you be 24 years old by January 1, 2015?

Helpful Hints

Anyone born before January 1, 1991 should answer "Yes" to this question.

Are you married?

Helpful Hints

This is as of the date you file. You should also answer yes if you are separated, but not divorced.

Will you be a graduate or doctoral student at the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year?

Helpful Hints

Examples of qualifying programs include MA, MBA, MD, JD, PhD, EdD, and graduate certificates.

Are you serving on active duty in the US Armed Forces?

Helpful Hints

If you are currently serving in the Armed Forces, or are an enlistee in the National Guard or Reserves on active duty for non-state or training purposes, answer "Yes".

Are you a Veteran of the Armed Forces or will you be by June 30, 2015?

Helpful Hints

Answer "Yes" if:

  • You have engaged in active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard) or are a National Guard or Reserve enlistee who was called to active duty for other than state or training purposes, or were a cadet or midshipman at one of the service academies AND
  • You were released under a condition other than dishonorable.

Do you have dependents who receive more than half of their support from you and will continue to through the end of the award year?

Helpful Hints

To claim a dependent on FAFSA, you must provide more than 50% of their support. This includes things like housing, food, health insurance, and other necessities. You may be required to provide documentation of your support to your school's financial aid office.

Note: Unborn children who will be born during the award year (July 1 to June 30) count towards household size, but NOT towards your dependency status. If you are expecting a child within the award year, but have no other dependents, answer "No".

Since age 13, were your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward of the court?

Helpful Hints

Answer "Yes" if:

  • Since the age of 13, you had no living parent, even if you are now adopted; or
  • You were in foster care at any point; or
  • You were a dependent or ward of the court - this does not include situations of incarceration.

Note: You may be required to provide proof to your school's financial aid office.

Have you ever been an emancipated minor, or in legal guardianship as determined by a court in your state of residence?

Helpful Hints

To answer "Yes" you must be able to provide documentation of the court's decision that you are either:

  • Currently an emancipated minor or in legal guardianship; or
  • You were an emancipated minor or in legal guardianship immediately before becoming an adult in your state of residence.

Note: You may be required to provide proof to your school's financial aid office.

At any time on or after July 1, 2012, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?

Helpful Hints

For this question “Homeless” means lacking fixed, regular and adequate housing. You may be homeless if you are living in shelters, parks, motels or cars, or are temporarily living with other people because you have nowhere else to go. Also, if you are living in any of these situations and fleeing an abusive parent you may be considered homeless even if your parent would provide support and a place to live.

  • “Unaccompanied” means you are not living in the physical custody of your parent or guardian.
  • “Youth” means you are 21 years of age or younger or you are still enrolled in high school as of the day you sign the FAFSA

At any time on or after July 1, 2012, did the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?

Helpful Hints

For this question “Homeless” means lacking fixed, regular and adequate housing. You may be homeless if you are living in shelters, parks, motels or cars, or are temporarily living with other people because you have nowhere else to go. Also, if you are living in any of these situations and fleeing an abusive parent you may be considered homeless even if your parent would provide support and a place to live.

  • “Unaccompanied” means you are not living in the physical custody of your parent or guardian.
  • “Youth” means you are 21 years of age or younger or you are still enrolled in high school as of the day you sign the FAFSA

At any time on or after July 1, 2012, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

Helpful Hints

For this question “Homeless” means lacking fixed, regular and adequate housing. You may be homeless if you are living in shelters, parks, motels or cars, or are temporarily living with other people because you have nowhere else to go. Also, if you are living in any of these situations and fleeing an abusive parent you may be considered homeless even if your parent would provide support and a place to live.

  • “Unaccompanied” means you are not living in the physical custody of your parent or guardian.
  • “Youth” means you are 21 years of age or younger or you are still enrolled in high school as of the day you sign the FAFSA

Your FAFSA dependency status is:

INDEPENDENT

This means you may file the FAFSA without a parent's financial information.

Ready to Apply?

Get Started!

Helpful Hints

Before you file, make sure you have the following documents/information ready:

  • Your Social Security Number
  • Your driver's license
  • Your W-2 forms and other income documentation from last year
  • Your (and your spouse's, if applicable)Tax return from last year
  • Bank statements
  • Current investment and asset records
  • Permanent resident or alien registration card (if you're not a U.S. citizen)

Your FAFSA dependency status is:

DEPENDENT

This means you are required to provide parental information on the FAFSA. If you feel that you have special circumstances that should be considered, read below for how to proceed.

Ready to Apply?

Get Started!

Helpful Hints

Before you file, make sure you have the following documents/information ready:

    Your:
  • Social Security Number
  • Driver's license
  • W-2 forms and other income documentation from last year
  • Tax return from last year
  • Bank statements
  • Current investment and asset records
  • Permanent resident or alien registration card (if you're not a U.S. citizen)
    Your Parents:
  • Tax return from last year
  • Current investment and asset records

Tips for Answering the Dependency Status Questions

If I support myself 100 percent, can I file as independent?

No. A student is still considered to be a dependent student even if he or she is financially self-sufficient.

If I no longer live with my parents, can I file as independent?

Maybe.

A student who lives on his or her own, or with a friend or family member other than his or her parents, is not automatically independent unless a judge in the student’s state of legal residence has issued a court order declaring the student to be an emancipated minor prior to the student’s reaching the age of majority.

However, sometimes a student moves out of the family home because of unusual circumstances, such as a hostile or abusive home environment, that may justify a dependency override. Contact the college’s financial aid office for further instructions.

It is also possible that the student will qualify as an independent student because he or she is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

What if my parents refuse to provide their information?

If a dependent student’s parents refuse to provide their financial information on the FAFSA, the most aid the student could be eligible for is an unsubsidized Federal Stafford loan. Contact the college’s financial aid office for more information on their specific policy and next steps.

College financial aid administrators can also talk to the student’s parents to try to convince them to complete and submit the FAFSA. For example, some parents are unwilling to file the FAFSA because of privacy concerns. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment (20 USC 1232g and 34 CFR 99) safeguards the privacy of educational records, including financial aid application forms. In particular, FERPA does not permit the release of parent financial information to the student.

If I am divorced, am I independent?

Only students who are married on the FAFSA filing date (or who answer “yes” to one of the other FAFSA dependency questions) are considered to be independent. A student who was previously married but gets divorced before filing the FAFSA is considered to be dependent, unless the student satisfies one of the other criteria for independent student status. (A student who is separated but not yet divorced should answer “yes” to the question about the student’s marital status. A separated student is still considered to be an independent student, since the marriage has not yet been dissolved.)

Students who get divorced after filing the FAFSA should consult with their college’s financial aid administrator. Since July 1, 2012, college financial aid administrators may require students to update the student’s marital status after a mid-year change in marital status “to address an inequity or to more accurately reflect the applicant’s ability to pay,” according to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. College financial aid administrators may update the student’s marital status (and consequently, the dependency status, household size and number in college), but are not required to do so. Policies vary from college to college. Some colleges have a cut-off date after which they will not consider changes in a student’s marital status. Some colleges will allow changes in the student’s marital status only in unusual circumstances, such as death of the student’s spouse, divorce due to incarceration or incapacitation of the student’s spouse, or divorce due to court protection from abuse orders against the spouse.

I am confused by the “born before” question.

If a student will reach age 24 on or before December 31 of the academic year, the student is considered to be independent.

The FAFSA does not ask whether the student will be 24 years old or older by the end of the calendar year. (This would be even more confusing since the FAFSA’s application season, which is based on the award year (academic year), spans two calendar years.) Instead, the question asks the student to compare his/her date of birth with a specific date. Given that the FAFSA already has the student’s date of birth and could easily perform this comparison itself, the real purpose of the question is to improve the accuracy of FAFSA data by asking the same question in two different ways.

Even so, many people find date comparisons inherently confusing. When the FAFSA asks whether the student was “born before January 1, 1991,” interpret it as though the form is asking whether the student was “born in 1990 or an earlier year.”

My parents are divorced; how do I file?

The marital status of a student’s parents does not affect whether the student is considered to be a dependent student or an independent student. It does affect which parent or parents are responsible for completing the FAFSA. Filing the FAFSA with divorced parents can be complicated.

If the student’s parents are unmarried (divorced or never married) and living together, the parents are treated as though they are married. The financial and demographic information for both parents must be reported on the FAFSA.

If the student’s parents are unmarried and do not live together, only one parent’s information is reported on the FAFSA. This parent, often called the custodial parent, is not necessarily the parent who has legal custody. The custodial parent is the parent with whom the student lived the most during the 12-month period ending on the date the FAFSA is filed. If the student lived equally with both parents (e.g., a 50/50 split of an even number of days in the year due to a leap year or a recent divorce), then the custodial parent is the parent who provided more support.

My custodial parent has remarried; do I need to include the stepparent's information?

Yes. If a dependent student’s custodial parent has remarried, the student is still considered to be a dependent student. The stepparent’s financial and demographic information must be reported on the FAFSA, without exception. So long as the stepparent is married to the custodial parent on the date the FAFSA is filed, the stepparent’s information is required, regardless of whether there is a prenuptial agreement and regardless of whether the stepparent refuses to support the student.

The increase in income from counting the stepparent usually results in a significant reduction in the student’s eligibility for need-based financial aid. But there are some circumstances in which counting the stepparent can result in an increase in financial aid eligibility. For example, if the stepparent has children from a previous marriage and provides more than half their support, these children are counted in parent’s household size even if they do not live with the stepparent. Those children may also be counted in the number of children in college, if applicable. Increasing the number of children in college can lead to a significant decrease in the expected family contribution (EFC) because, under the federal formula, the parent contribution portion of the EFC is divided by the number of children in college.

My parent’s obligation to pay child support ended because I’m “emancipated;” does this mean I’m an independent student?

The termination of a divorced parent’s child support obligation does not change the student’s dependency status from dependent to independent.

Emancipation for child support purposes means that the child has reached the age of majority and is no longer considered to be a minor. This is not the same as the child becoming an emancipated minor, which means that a court in the child’s state of legal residence has declared the child to be legally an adult before the child reaches the age of majority.

Students who claim to be independent because they are an emancipated minor may be asked to provide a copy of the court order, since this status on the FAFSA is often prone to error.

If my parents granted legal custody to my grandparents, can I file as an independent student?

For a student in a legal guardianship to be considered independent, the legal guardianship must have been determined by a court of competent jurisdiction in the student’s state of legal residence. A legal guardianship established by an attorney is not sufficient; the legal guardianship must have been court-ordered. Students who claim to be independent because of a legal guardianship may be asked to provide a copy of the court order because misinterpretations of this provision are common.

Legal guardians and foster care parents are not considered to be parents for federal and state student aid purposes. The student may not substitute a legal guardian for his or her parents on the FAFSA. The income and assets of a legal guardian and foster parent should not be reported on the FAFSA, nor should the legal guardian or foster parent be counted in household size. However, any support provided by a legal guardian to the student should be reported as untaxed income to the student. Foster care payments are not reported on the FAFSA.

If I was a ward of the state when I reached age 13, can I file as an independent student?

Students who are or were wards of the court, orphaned or in foster care at any time after reaching age 13 are considered to be independent students. However, a student who was incarcerated is not considered to be a ward or dependent of the court. Incarceration does not make a student an independent student. For a ward of the court to qualify as an independent student, the court must have assumed legal custody of the student. Since this status is often prone to misinterpretation, the student may be asked to provide a copy of the court order that designated the student as a ward of the state. College financial aid administrators may also follow up with the court to seek clarification.

If I was adopted at age 12 after my parents died, can I file as an independent student?

For an orphan to be considered an independent student, the adoption must have occurred after the orphan turned age 13. If an orphan is adopted prior to reaching age 13, the orphan is not considered to be an independent student.

If I am pregnant, can I file as an independent student?

Unborn children, if they will be born by the end of the award or academic year, may be counted in household size if they will receive more than half support from the student or the student’s parents from birth through the end of the award year. If the student will provide more than half of the child’s support, not counting any support provided directly or indirectly from the student’s parents, then the student is considered to be an independent student.

The student can count any support the student receives for the child from sources other than the student’s parents as part of the student’s support of the child, including money from government assistance programs (e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)) and child support received from the baby’s father. (Likewise, if the child’s father will be providing more than half the baby’s support, the child’s father may be considered to be an independent student on his own FAFSA. So, it is technically feasible for both the baby’s mother and the baby’s father to be providing more than half of the baby’s support.)

Note that support includes not just cash, loans and gifts, but also any expense the student would otherwise have had to pay, such as housing, medical/dental insurance, car payments and insurance, college costs, food, clothing, etc. If the student lives with his or her parents, there will be a presumption that the parents are providing more than half support if the parents are paying for the housing costs.

What is the appeal process?

The criteria for independent student status are objective, not subject to interpretation. However, if a student has unusual circumstances, he or she can ask the college financial aid administrator to perform a dependency override. College financial aid administrators may change a student’s status from dependent to independent when justified by documented unusual circumstances. Each college’s appeals process is different, so it is best to contact the college’s financial aid office for details.