If you’re going to college, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an important first step in funding your education. Last year, over 18 million people completed the FAFSA, and the federal government disbursed over $120 billion in federal student aid, reported the U.S. Department of Education.
However, completing the FAFSA for the first time can be overwhelming. One of trickiest aspects is figuring out whether you’re a dependent student or qualify as an independent student. Filing the FAFSA as an independent person can have a big impact on how much aid you receive.
Here’s what you need to know before choosing your dependency status.
Why your dependency 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 that, dependent students 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 you can answer to decide what dependency status you should use:
- Will you be 24 or older as of Dec. 31 of the school year you’re applying for aid?
- Are you working toward a master’s or doctorate degree?
- Are you married or separated, but not divorced?
- Do you have children who get 50 percent or more of their financial support from you?
- Do you have dependents, other than a spouse or child, who lives with you and gets 50 percent or more of their financial support from you?
- Since the year you turned 13, did your parents pass away? Or, did you spend time in foster care or as a ward of the court?
- Are you an emancipated minor or in a legal guardianship?
- Are you a self-supporting youth that is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless?
- Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. military?
- Are you a military veteran?
The U.S. Department of Education also has a handy infographic that can help you decide your filing status.
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 said “yes” to one or more, you might be an independent student 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 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.
- Household size: You might be asked to submit a document stating your household size and sign it.
- High school completion: The school can ask for proof that you graduated from high school. You can submit a copy of your diploma, final transcripts, or a copy of a homeschooling credential.
- Military service: If questioned about your service, you can direct the financial officer to your contact at your local Veteran’s Affairs office.
- Homelessness: You could be asked to provide the name or number of a homeless youth liaison, a Runaway and Homeless Youth Act provider, or a 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
Though 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.
Filing the FAFSA
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.
Need a student loan?Here are our top student loan lenders of 2019!
|1 Important Disclosures for Ascent.
Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.
* Application times vary depending on the applicants ability to supply the necessary information for submission.
2 Important Disclosures for College Ave.
College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.
Information advertised valid as of 4/1/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.
3 Important Disclosures for Discover.
* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.
4 = Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
5 Important Disclosures for SunTrust.
Before applying for a private student loan, SunTrust recommends comparing all financial aid alternatives including grants, scholarships, and both federal and private student loans. To view and compare the available features of SunTrust private student loans, visit https://www.suntrust.com/loans/student-loans/private.
Certain restrictions and limitations may apply. SunTrust Bank reserves the right to change or discontinue this loan program without notice. Availability of all loan programs is subject to approval under the SunTrust credit policy and other criteria and may not be available in certain jurisdictions.
SunTrust Bank, Member FDIC. ©2019 SunTrust Banks, Inc. SUNTRUST, the SunTrust logo and Custom Choice Loan are trademarks of SunTrust Banks, Inc. All rights reserved.
6 Important Disclosures for LendKey.
Additional terms and conditions apply. For more details see LendKey
7 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.
A government loan is made according to rules set by the U.S. Department of Education. Government loans have fixed interest rates, meaning that the interest rate on a government loan will never go up or down.
Government loans also permit borrowers in financial trouble to use certain options, such as income-based repayment, which may help some borrowers. Depending on the type of loan that you have, the government may discharge your loan if you die or become permanently disabled.
Depending on what type of government loan that you have, you may be eligible for loan forgiveness in exchange for performing certain types of public service. If you are an active-duty service member and you obtained your government loan before you were called to active duty, you are entitled to interest rate and repayment benefits for your loan.
A private student loan is not a government loan and is not regulated by the Department of Education. A private student loan is instead regulated like other consumer loans under both state and federal law and by the terms of the promissory note with your lender.
If your private student loan has a fixed interest rate, then that rate will never go up or down. If your private student loan has a variable interest rate, then that rate will vary depending on an index rate disclosed in your application. If the interest rate on the new private student loan is less than the interest rate on your government loans, your payments will be less if you refinance.
If you don’t pay a private student loan as agreed, the lender can refer your loan to a collection agency or sue you for the unpaid amount.
Remember also that like government loans, most private loans cannot be discharged if you file bankruptcy unless you can demonstrate that repayment of the loan would cause you an undue hardship. In most bankruptcy courts, proving undue hardship is very difficult for most borrowers.
8 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.
Citizens Bank Disclosures
|4.24% – 13.24%1||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|4.07% – 11.32%2||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|
|4.84% – 13.49%3||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|4.50% – 11.35%*,4||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|4.25% – 13.25%5||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|6.08% – 7.22%6||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|3.95% – 9.81%7||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|
|4.45% – 12.42%8||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|