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.
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