How Does FAFSA Dependency Work?

Filling out the FAFSA is the first step to getting financial aid for college. This is not an easy form to fill out but it’s absolutely crucial that you do it. Without the FAFSA you may lose out on certain types of financial aid. One of the more complex questions on this application is related to your FAFSA dependency status.

You will need to submit slightly different information depending on whether you’re a dependent or independent student. All this to say, your dependency status plays a key role in determining your financial aid eligibility.

dependent and independent students in college

Broad Definition of Dependent & Independent for FAFSA Purposes

In general, if you depend on your parent or guardian for financial assistance, you’re a dependent student. As a dependent student, report your parent’s or guardian’s income on the FAFSA. Only provide your custodial parent’s financial information. In the case of your custodial parent remarrying, you’ll need to submit their spouse’s financial information as well.

If you don’t depend on a parent or guardian for financial assistance, you are independent. As an independent student, you only report your own income on the FAFSA. Report your spouse’s income if married.

The above is only a general explanation of dependency for the FAFSA. The Department of Education has very specific criteria to determine students’ dependency status for the purpose of financial aid.

Dependent Student

For financial aid purposes, you’re considered a dependent student if these apply to you:

  • Not yet 24 by January 1st of the school year in which you’re applying for aid
  • Working towards any degree other than masters or doctorate
  • Are unmarried
  • Don’t have children or dependents who receive at least half their financial support from you
  • Parents are alive
  • Not in foster care and not a ward of the court
  • You’re not an emancipated minor
  • Not an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or at risk of being homeless
  • You’re not currently serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces
  • Not a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces
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Independent Student

If you meet even one of these criteria, you are an independent student.

  • 24 years or older by January 1 of the school year in which you’re applying for aid
  • Working towards a master’s or doctorate degree
  • Married or separated but not divorced
  • Have children or dependents who receive at least half their financial support from you
  • Currently serving on active duty in the US Armed Forces
  • Veteran of the US Armed Forces
  • Lost both parents after you turned 13
  • In foster care or a dependent or ward of the court
  • Legally emancipated from parents or guardians by a court judge
  • Homeless or at risk for homelessness as determined by an approved official

As an independent student, you need to include only your personal financial information on the FAFSA. You don’t need to submit any parental information.

The FAFSA requires you to submit relevant documentation to support your independent status. The exact information required will depend on which criterion you meet to qualify as an independent status. You’ll need to submit a marriage certificate if you’re married. If you’re a veteran or currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, you’ll need to submit appropriate documentation as proof.

Dependent Vs. Independent Status – How It Affects Your Financial Aid

Your FAFSA dependency status has a considerable impact on how much federal financial aid you qualify for. According to the federal government, parents are responsible for financing their children’s education. This is regardless of whether or not they can afford to pay the cost of tuition. With that in mind, the federal government calculates financial aid differently for dependent and independent students. Dependent students qualify for less aid due to having parental support. Independent students do not have this support and may qualify for more financial aid.

What Happens If You Can’t Provide the Documentation?

Of course, not all students fit neatly into either of the two categories. You may qualify for independent status but your special circumstances don’t allow you to obtain the supporting documentation. Unfortunately, this means you don’t have any parental support and you don’t qualify for additional aid either. If you find yourself in this situation, consult with your school’s financial aid advisor. They may be able to help you qualify for independent status without supporting papers under these circumstances:

  • You were abandoned by both parents
  • You are over 21 but under 24 and are unaccompanied and homeless or at risk of being homeless
  • Your parents reside in a location where mail delivery does not exist
  • Both parents were hospitalized for an extended period
  • Your parents whereabouts are unknown or they cannot be located
  • Both parents are physically or mentally incapable of raising a child
  • Your surviving parent is mentally handicapped
  • You suffered documented parental abuse and contacting your parents could endanger you
  • Both parents are incarcerated or institutionalized

If any of these situations apply to you, don’t hesitate to get advice about what to do next. Remember, your dependency status will affect your financial aid eligibility. The best thing to do is to contact the financial aid office at your school or the schools you plan on applying to. An experienced financial aid counselor will help you overcome existing obstacles so you can get the maximum financial aid you’re eligible for.

FAFSA Dependency and More

Our free question-by-question FAFSA guide can walk you through the form with ease! Make sure you get the aid you qualify for and file the FAFSA!