How to Approach and Answer the FAFSA With a Divorced Parent

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 1/30/20

All potential and current college students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This document is used by the federal government, state governments, and colleges to determine which financial aid packages you are eligible for.

The FAFSA takes information about your assets and income, as well as your family’s assets and income, to create an expected family contribution (EFC) number. Then, the cost of attendance (COA) at various schools you list on the FAFSA is subtracted from your EFC to create a specific number, which is used to determine if you have significant financial need. You may qualify for federal grants, state-based scholarships, need-based institutional awards, and several types of student loans based on this number.

The EFC examines your family’s financial standing, which includes parents’ income and whether you have siblings who are also in college. If you have divorced parents, information on your FAFSA may be a bit more complex.

Understanding how FAFSA calculates divorced parent income and assets can help you correctly fill out this form, so you can get the best financial assistance for your education. 

Separation and Divorce on the FAFSA

Dependent students are those who are still considered dependents of their parents for tax purposes with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This is common for undergraduate students, especially those who are entering their first year of college.

The FAFSA determines if you are a dependent based on these factors

  • Age: If you were born after Jan. 1, 1996, you are young enough to be a dependent.
  • Marital status: If you are married, separated, or divorced, you are an independent student for tax reasons.
  • Children: If you have your own dependents, like children, you are an independent student. 
  • Degree: If you pursue a graduate or doctoral degree, you are an independent student.
  • Military service: If you are on active duty or a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, you are an independent student.

If you are considered a dependent student, the FAFSA uses your parents’ financial information to determine the type and amount of financial aid for which you qualify. For these purposes, parents and legal guardians may be either biological or adoptive.

Your financial information can be complicated by divorce. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 787,251 divorces in 2017, leading to a divorce rate of about 2.9 out of every 1,000 people. While the divorce rate is going down – decreasing 18% between 2008 and 2016 – nearly half of all marriages still end in divorce.

If you are a dependent student, your parents’ income is considered differently if they are divorced, and it is important to report this information accurately on your FAFSA.

How Separation and Divorce Can Complicate Finances in Different Ways

While married couples’ combined income affects their children’s financial aid through FAFSA, the same can be true for divorced parents, depending on several factors. Often, one parent makes more than the other, and, in many cases, one parent has primary custody of the children. Income like alimony and child support can also affect financial information on the FAFSA.

Here is the current information on divorced parents’ expected family contribution (EFC) for the FAFSA:

First, you must define who your parents are. Legally, this is who the state considers your parents, either through a birth certificate or adoption.

It is common for college students to have divorced or separated parents; FAFSA asks about this information to streamline the reporting process for financial reasons. There are several similarities between legal separation and divorce, including: 

  • Working out child custody and visitation
  • Determining who pays child support and how much
  • If there is spousal support
  • If there is a division of property

There are financial and personal differences between separation and divorce, like: 

  • Moral or ethical reasons for choosing separation rather than divorce, such as religious traditions
  • One spouse will become eligible for benefits or needs benefits, like health insurance
  • Parents want to use the married tax benefit 
  • Parents are not eligible for divorce under state law
  • Separation is less stressful or expensive than divorce

With a legal separation, many people remain technically married but choose to live apart. Many states consider this kind of separation financially similar to divorce and will not bestow tax benefits on the couple. For financial reasons, more separated and divorced couples are living together, so the FAFSA has been updated to include questions regarding this potential arrangement, which can impact finances for all parties. 

  • If your parents are separated or divorced and do not live together, answer FAFSA questions about the parent you lived with more in the past 12 months, as this is your primary caretaker.
  • If you spent equal time with your parents in the past 12 months, provide information on the parent who provided more financial support.
  • If your parents still live together but are divorced, indicate this status on the FAFSA with “Unmarried and both legal parents living together,” then answer all financial questions for both parents.
  • If your parents still live together but are legally separated, select the “Married or remarried” (NOT “Divorced or separated”) portion of the FAFSA and answer questions about both parents.

Stepparents and Other Guardians for FAFSA Documents

Stepparents can impact your parents’ financial standing, as married couples often combine financial resources and use marriage for tax benefits. If you are reporting information for a primary parent who has remarried, you should also report financial information regarding your stepparent. However, if your stepparent is widowed because your legal parent passed away, their financial information is not necessary unless they have adopted you and are, therefore, your legal parent.

FAFSA needs specific information about your parents, like:

  • Name, date of birth, and Social Security number
  • Living situation (marital status, state of residence, and household size, including stepsiblings or half-siblings)
  • Financial circumstances, including tax information, certain assets, and untaxed income

Often, children live with someone other than their legal parents, including: 

  • Grandparents
  • Adult older siblings
  • Aunts or uncles
  • Foster parents who are not yet adoptive parents
  • Legal guardians of another type
  • Widowed stepparents who have not adopted them

In this instance, it does not matter if you do not live with your parents; you must still report their financial information to the best of your ability on your FAFSA, including their separation or divorce. This helps the federal government get a clear picture of their ability to financially support you, so your EFC can be accurately calculated. 

Special Circumstances When You Cannot Get FAFSA Information From Divorced Parents

In some circumstances, you may be unable to get information from your parents for your FAFSA form. Special circumstances mean you are still a dependent but do not need to fill out parental information on the FAFSA. This may be the case if: 

  • One or both parents are incarcerated
  • You left home due to abuse in your family
  • You do not know where your parents are and cannot contact them (and you have not been adopted)
  • You are older than 21, younger than 24, and either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless

Unfortunately, if your parent or parents refuse to give you information for your FAFSA, this is not a special circumstance. You are not considered independent of them simply because they refuse this information. In this case, you are able to select, “I am unable to provide information about my parent(s),” as an option. You may not receive an EFC because of this, but information about your finances is still important for schools when they create financial aid packages for you. 

The Modern FAFSA Easily Incorporates Separated and Divorced Parent Information

If you are a potential college student and a dependent, your parents’ citizenship status, income, and other financial factors will not negatively impact your application. The point of the FAFSA is for the federal government, state governments, and schools to know what they can offer you if you are accepted and choose to attend college.

When your parents are divorced, you may be concerned about how this complicates your finances according to FAFSA. The current FAFSA divorced parent information is easy to follow. Just answer all of the questions to the best of your ability.