Almost every student needs some type of financial aid to attend a four-year college. Even the cost of two-year colleges and trade schools can be out of reach for many students unless they get financial assistance. Some college educations, including tuition and room and board, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Financial aid companies examine the income of both parents, the costs of the college, and other factors in deciding how much to loan and the terms of the loan. The ability to apply for financial aid gets harder when the parents are going through a divorce, have been divorced, the parents aren’t wed, and for blended families.

A recent piece published in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that FAFSA applications usually require that the parents and the students provide information about their financial background. The newspaper notes that students and parents who file for FAFSA aid also must often file “the College Board’s CSS Profile,” which has different requirements than FAFSA.

The newspaper provided some answers to commonly asked questions. If you and your spouse are divorced and your child is ready to go to college, these questions and answers can help you through the financial aid process.

Which people qualify as eligible parents for the student?

FAFSA defines a parent as:

  • A biological parent
  • A parent who adopted the student
  • A person that the state (such as Tennessee) recognizes as a parent

The following people, unless they adopted the student, do NOT qualify as parents for federal student aid purposes:

  • Grandparents
  • Foster parents
  • Older siblings
  • Aunts and uncles
  • Widowed stepparents

Even legal guardians do not qualify unless they legally adopted the student, according to the article.

Which parent provides the financial aid information if the parents are divorced or separated?

FAFSA only requires that one parent provide his/her financial information. The parent who the student has lived with the most in the 12 months prior to the filing of the application is considered the custodial parent, for FAFSA purposes. FAFSA is interested in the custodial parent’s information. In cases where a student lived with two parents equally, then the parent who provided the most financial support should supply his/her information.

If a custodial parent remarried (as of the date the FAFSA forms are filed), the custodial parent must include the financial information of their spouse on the FAFSA forms – which, the Wall Street Journal says, often surprises many stepparents.

What are the FAFSA requirements if the parents are still living together – even if they are divorced?

In this scenario, FAFSA needs to see the income information for both parents – even if the parents consider themselves separated. The director of financial aid at one college encourages parents and students to submit a letter of explanation/contact the financial aid office for the colleges they’re interested in, if there are unique situations such as living together after divorce of separation. The financial-aid officers do have some discretion.

How should the household size question be answered?

The following people should be included in the household size:

  • The student
  • The parent (or parents) who live in the household
  • All other children (even if they don’t live in the home) – provided they “receive more than half of their financial support from the parents or parents for the period specified by the FAFSA”
  • Any people who aren’t parents or children of parents who live in the household – if they “receive more than half of their support from them and will continue to do so for the specified period.” 

What happens if the parents of the student are divorced but they filed joint tax returns for the returns FAFSA reviews?

Generally, only the income information of the custodial parent should be included – even if the tax returns (usually for prior news) suggest differently. In reverse, if a tax return shows just one parent but the custodial parent remarried after the tax returns were filed, then the information for the parent and new spouse should be included. To be safe, the best course is usually to contact the financial office for the school the student is attending.

At LaFevor & Slaughter, we advise couples going through a divorce and parents who are separated on a broad range of financial and emotional issues. Part and parcel of every family law case is reviewing the long-term and short-term financial needs of our clients and their children. To speak with an experienced and respected Knoxville divorce and custody lawyer, call our attorneys at 865-637-6258 or complete our contact form to schedule a consultation.