The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your key to grants, scholarships, work-study and federal student loans. It collects your parents’ tax returns and other financial information to determine how much your family can afford to pay for college.
But if your parents didn’t file their taxes, you might be wondering how to do the FAFSA without your parents’ tax return.
In some cases, your parents are exempt from filing income taxes, so your financial aid status won’t be affected. But if your parents aren’t exempt, you might not qualify for federal financial aid.
Here’s what you need to know about how to complete the FAFSA without your parents’ tax return:
- How to complete the FAFSA if your parents are tax-exempt
- How to complete the FAFSA if your parents are not tax-exempt
- Dependency overrides: filing as an independent student
- Additional tips for completing your FAFSA
There are some situations in which your parents are exempt from filing their taxes. If they are exempt, you don’t have to worry about missing out on financial aid. Here’s how to go about completing your FAFSA in four specific tax-exempt situations:
If your parents’ income falls below the federal filing threshold, they’re not required to file income taxes. For the 2020 year, the minimum income to file a tax return was $12,400 for a single person under 65 and $24,800 for married couples under 65 filing jointly.
In this case, you can check the box “Will Not File” when you fill out the FAFSA. You won’t be required to provide tax returns, but your parents might have to upload W-2s, 1099s or pay stubs from the previous year to support their income claim.
Although this process could involve some extra work, the silver lining is that you’ll likely qualify for need-based aid, such as the Pell Grant.
While taxes are typically due on April 15, your parents might have an authorized extension that lets them file later. If your parents successfully complete the tax extension document Form 4868, for instance, they’ll get an additional six months to file. Members of the Armed Forces who are serving in a combat zone also can have their filing deadlines suspended during their service and for 180 days afterward.
If your parents have an authorized filing extension or suspension, you can choose the option, “Will File” on your FAFSA. You can also provide pay stubs or income tax returns from previous years to provide financial information.
When your parents do file their returns, you can sign back into the FAFSA, fill in the updated information and change your status from “Will File” to “Already Completed” and fill in final amounts.
If your parents don’t live in the U.S. or pay U.S. income taxes, you can select “Foreign Country” in response to the question of their legal state of residence and “Foreign Tax Return” in response to the question of what type of tax return your parents filed when you fill out the FAFSA. In this case, you’ll still need to provide information from your parents’ tax return and convert any amounts to U.S. dollars.
If you’re a non-U.S. citizen but are a permanent resident or eligible noncitizen, you’ll still be eligible for federal aid, even if your parents have undocumented status. In this case, the answer to “Can I get financial aid if my parents didn’t file taxes because they’re undocumented residents?” would be yes.
However, if you (the student) have undocumented status, you unfortunately are not eligible for federal aid. That said, you might qualify for aid from your state or college.
Taxpayers can also get an authorized extension on their taxes if they were affected by a federally declared natural disaster. In this case, you may be able to choose “Will File” on the FAFSA and update the information once your parents are back on their feet.
Head to Disaster Assistance and Emergency Relief for Individuals and Businesses on the IRS website for more information on handling your tax situation after a natural disaster.
While you can find a workaround for the FAFSA’s tax return requirement if your parents were exempt from filing, you might have a harder time if your parents weren’t exempt. Maybe they accidentally missed the filing deadline or experienced a medical emergency that caused them to fall behind.
Either way, you won’t be eligible for federal financial aid as a dependent until your parents file their taxes. In fact, college financial aid administrators are prohibited from giving out federal student aid to dependents until this situation is resolved.
In rare circumstances, you might be able to file on your own as an independent. Typically, you’re considered a dependent until you’re 24 or married, even if you’re financially self-sufficient. But students in unusual circumstances can request a dependency override from their college financial aid administrator.
You could be considered an independent if you’re:
- 24 years of age or older by Dec. 31 of the award year
- An orphan (both parents deceased), ward of the court, in foster care or were a ward of the court when you were 13 or older
- A veteran of the Armed Forces or serving on active duty
- A graduate or professional student
- Have legal dependents (not counting a spouse)
- An emancipated minor or in legal guardianship
- A homeless youth
Administrators might also grant a dependency override for students whose parents have been incarcerated or who have been the victim of an abusive home. To request an override, send a letter to your administrator explaining your situation and providing supporting documentation, such as letters from social workers or police reports.
In these circumstances, you might be able to file as an independent and remove the requirement of your parents’ tax information from the FAFSA completely.
The FAFSA opens every year on Oct. 1, and it’s a good idea to file as soon as possible since some financial aid is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis. Start gathering all of the information you’ll need over the summer so you can easily fill out the form once it becomes available.
The FAFSA asks for tax information from two years prior, so parents filling out the 2021-2022 form must provide their tax returns from 2019. If you anticipate any problems, figure out what you need to do as soon as you can.
Along with communicating with your parents, your college financial aid office might be able to help. Be proactive about finding a solution to your particular situation so you don’t miss out on valuable financial aid for college.