*Updated October 14, 2020
If you’re applying for financial aid to help you pay for college and you are considered a dependent student in the eyes of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), you are required to provide your parent’s or parents’ personal and financial information. But it is not always clear as to which parent or parents should be filling out your FAFSA form.
If your parents are married, or they are not married to each other but live together, then it’s easy — you will report their information.
But most situations are not so simple. Here’s when FAFSA gets tricky:
- Your parents are divorced and don’t live together;
- Your parents are divorced and live together;
- Your parents are divorced and married to another person;
- Your parents are separated and don’t live together;
- Your parents are separated and live together;
- Your parents are of the same gender and they are married to each other;
- Your parents are of the same gender and they are not married to each other but live together; and
- Your parents’ marital status have changed since they filed taxes for the year that information is required by the FAFSA form.
In these complex situations, you need to go through a string of tests to figure out which parent(s) should be filling out your FAFSA form.
But, why is it so important to determine who your parents are for FAFSA purposes?
The financial aid office at current and prospective colleges need a completed FAFSA form to determine a student’s eligibility for various forms of financial aid, which can be in the form of grants, work-study programs, federal student loans, or state and school financial aid awards.
The financial aid office will calculate your aid — type of aid and amount — based on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is an index number that varies from school to school based on their cost of education.
It is in your best interest, therefore, to get it right when you fill out the FAFSA form, and that includes providing the correct parents’ information.
Here is a step-by-step approach to help you identify your parents for FAFSA purposes.
Let’s begin with the definition of a parent.
A “parent” must be a legal (biological or adoptive) parent or stepparent, or a person deemed by the state to be a legal parent, such as the parent listed on your birth certificate. (It doesn’t matter if your parents are of the same gender.)
Note: Grandparents, foster parents, legal guardians, older brothers or sisters, uncles or aunts, and widowed stepparents are NOT your legal parent(s) unless they have legally adopted you.
Now that we know who could be a legal parent, let’s walk through various scenarios to see which one applies to you.
1. Who is my parent when my parents are married?
If your parents are married to each other, they both count. Their gender is irrelevant — same-sex couples are required to report as “married” if if they were legally married in a state or foreign country.
Note: For FAFSA purposes, your parents are considered “married” if they live their lives as a married couple. Physical distance between them, or living in a separate household, does not impact their “married” status as long as they do not live separate lives. A common example would be having a parent who has to live in a different state for employment purposes.
2. Who is my parent when my parents just live together?
If your parents are not married to each other but they live together, they both count (even if they are both of the same gender).
3. Who is my parent if my parent is widowed or never married?
If your parent is widowed or was never married, that is the parent who counts.
4. Who is my parent when my parents are divorced or separated?
It is not as easy to tell which parent counts when your parents are divorced or separated.
In a divorce, each party’s rights and obligations with respect to property, child support, child custody, child visitation rights, etc. are approved by a court. Separation is more tricky, as it could be legal or otherwise.
- In a legal separation, a court approves and orders the separation of a married couple, and each party’s rights and obligations as to child support, child custody, child visitation rights, etc. are spelled out. This is a common prelude to a divorce.
- In an informal separation, a married couple chooses to live separate lives, but their rights and obligations remain the same as if they are married. What’s key in these situations is not whether your parents are living together or separately, but whether they are living their own separate lives.
Who counts as your legal parent in these situations will depend on the underlying facts.
- My parents are divorced or separated and don’t live together
If your parents are divorced or separated and don’t live together, the parent who counts is the parent with whom you lived more in the past 12 months. If that parent is remarried, your stepparent counts as well. However, if that parent passed away and your stepparent did not legally adopt you, then your stepparent does NOT count.
But if the time you lived with your divorced or separated parents is the same, then the parent who counts is the parent who provided more financial support in the past 12 months or the most recent 12 months in which you actually received support from a parent. If that parent is remarried, your stepparent counts as well. (Again, a stepparent doesn’t count if he or she is widowed and did not legally adopt you.)
- My parents are divorced and live together
If your parents are divorced and live together, they both count — check off “Unmarried and both parents living together” on your FAFSA form.
- My parents are separated and live together
If your parents are separated and live together, they both count — check off “Married or remarried” and NOT “Divorced or separated” in your FAFSA form.
5. Who is my parent when there has been a change in my parents’ marital status?
The picture gets even more fuzzy if your parents’ marital status has changed since they filed taxes for the year in question.
The key here is that you’re answering the FAFSA question on marital status “as of today”, i.e., the day you’re filling out the FAFSA form.
So, let’s walk through 3 possible scenarios and figure out the consequences of a change in marital status of one or both your parents. To illustrate, we will use the 2021-22 school year for your FAFSA application, which requires 2019 tax information.
Scenario 1 — Your parent was NOT married in 2019 and didn’t file taxes as married. However, on the day you’re filling out the FAFSA form, that parent is married. This means that you will need your stepparent’s 2019 income on your FAFSA form.
Scenario 2 — Your parent was married in 2019 and filed taxes as married. But the parent is no longer married on the day you’re filling out the FAFSA form. This means that you will need to deduct your parent’s former spouse’s 2019 income from your FAFSA form.
Scenario 3 — Your parent was married in 2019 and filed taxes as married. But the parent is divorced and married to another person on the day you’re filling out the FAFSA form. This means that you will need to deduct your parent’s former spouse’s 2019 income, but add the new spouse’s 2019 income.
6. How can my parents help me with my FAFSA form?
Once you know which parents count for FAFSA purposes, you should ask them to take the following steps.
A. Create an FSA ID
One of your parents needs to create an FSA ID — a unique username and password combination — so he or she can sign your FAFSA form electronically. This will only take your parent a few minutes.
To get started, your parent should click on “Create Your FSA ID Now” and follow the instructions.
Step 1 — Enter email address, username and password. → click “CONTINUE”
Step 2 — Enter personal identification information — name, date of birth, and Social Security number. → click “CONTINUE”
Note: Your parent’s name, date of birth, and Social Security number must MATCH EXACTLY the information on his or her Social Security card, so it ties in with the Social Security Administration’s records.
Step 3 — Enter mailing address, confirm wish to register a mobile phone number that he or she can use to reset password and retrieve username (provide the number if so), and set language preference. → click “CONTINUE”
Step 4 — Complete the “challenge questions and answers” segment. The information your parent provides will be used to retrieve his or her password or username. → click “CONTINUE”
Step 5 — Verify information. If there are any errors, select “PREVIOUS” and correct the errors. Otherwise, review the terms and conditions and click the box to accept them. → click “CONTINUE”
Step 6 — If your parent elected to register a mobile phone number, he or she will receive a secure code by text. Enter the code to verify the phone number. → click “SUBMIT”
Step 7 — Your parent will receive another secure code by email. Enter the code to verify email address. → click “SUBMIT” and you are DONE.
Note: Your parent’s email and mobile number can only be associated with his or her FSA ID.
Your parent’s FSA ID will be ready for use once his or her information is confirmed with the Social Security Administration.
Note: You need to create your own FSA ID, which allows you to sign your FAFSA form electronically, access the myStudentAid app, sign your loan contracts, and access your financial aid information online. You and your parents are NOT allowed to share FSA IDs.
If your parent doesn’t have a Social Security number, he or she won’t be able to create an FSA ID. If that’s your situation, you should print out the signature page for your parent(s) to sign and send it by mail to the address provided in the FAFSA form.
If you have siblings in college, your parent(s) can use the same FSA ID as the one being used for you, but each of your siblings will need to create his or her own FSA ID.
B. Fill out parent information
Your parents are required to provide the following documents or information on your FAFSA form.
- Social Security numbers and birthdates
- Income tax returns
- IRS Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ
- Foreign tax return, if any
- Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau
FAFSA uses financial information from two years before the school year in question.
2020-21 school year → 2018 tax returns
2021-22 school year → 2019 tax returns
- IRS W-2 forms — like the federal income tax returns, W-2s should be from two years before the school year in question.
2020-21 school year → 2018 W-2s
2021-22 school year → 2019 W-2s
- Records of untaxed income — such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, etc.
- Cash information and savings and checking balances (from bank statements)
- Investments information — such as real estate (excluding the home you live in), stocks and bonds, business and farm assets, etc.
You can fill out the parent section or have your parents complete the section. An easy way to complete the financial information is to select the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT), so your tax information and that of your parents is automatically transferred to your FAFSA form. You can check here to find out when the tax return information will likely be available via IRS DRT.
Note: If your parents are filling out the parent section, the easiest way to ensure that all of you have access to your FAFSA form is to create a temporary password — a “Save Key” — almost right away when you start your FAFSA form and share it with your parents. The “Save Key” also allows you to save your FAFSA form without finishing it and return to it later.
Be sure to collect your parents’ documents they need ahead of time, so your application process can go smoothly.
If the financial situation has changed significantly since you and your parent(s) filed taxes for the year in question, simply answer the FAFSA questions as required, submit the FAFSA form, and then call the financial aid office at your intended/present college to explain your situation.
7. What if I cannot provide parent information on my FAFSA form?
Although the FAFSA form requires parent information if you are a dependent student, there are certain exceptions.
A. I can’t provide parent information due to special circumstances
If you can’t provide parent information due to special circumstances, you can indicate that on your FAFSA form.
Special circumstances include:
- Your parents’ incarceration;
- Your leaving home because of an abusive family environment;
- Your lack of knowledge of your parents’ whereabouts and inability to get in touch with them (and you have not been adopted); and
- Determination by your high school or district liaison, among others, that you are an unaccompanied youth, and are either homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless. To be “unaccompanied,” you must not be living in the physical custody of your parent or legal guardian. You are “homeless” if you lack “fixed, regular and adequate housing.” You may be considered homeless if you are living in shelters, parks, motels, hotels, public spaces, camping grounds, cars, abandoned buildings, or temporarily living with other people because you have nowhere else to go.
On your FAFSA form, select the “I am unable to provide information about my parent(s)” option.
Note: If you are using the myStudentAid app to apply, select the “Learn more” link at the point where the app indicates that it looks like parent information is required to calculate your EFC.
Next, when you are given an explanation of what falls under special circumstances, select the choice that best fits your situation.
You can submit your application without providing parent information, but you won’t receive your EFC, so you must immediately contact your college’s financial aid office to explain your situation.
You may be asked to provide additional information to support your claim of special circumstances, so try to collect documents from the applicable court or law enforcement, letters from a clergy member, school counselor or social worker, and any other relevant information.
The financial aid office will use the additional information to determine if you can be considered as an independent student and calculate your EFC without your parents’ information. This decision — whether you’re a dependent student or qualifies as an independent student — is final and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Department of Education.
B. I can’t provide parent information because my parents refuse to give their information
Sometimes, parents are not willing to help their children with their FAFSA form. If your parents refuse to provide their information, you can indicate that on your FAFSA form.
First, select the “I am unable to provide information about my parent(s)” option.
Next, select the option that states you don’t have a special circumstance but you still can’t provide parent information.
Note: If you are using the app to apply, select the option that you would like to be considered for unsubsidized loans, which require you to pay interest even when you’re in school, in grace period, or in deferment.
You can submit your application without providing parent information, if you agree that you will not be eligible for any federal student aid — grants, work-study programs, and federal student loans — other than unsubsidized loans, and that the decision to award unsubsidized loans will be made by the financial aid office at your college.
Your FAFSA information will then be sent to the colleges you list, but you won’t receive an EFC, so you must immediately contact your college’s financial aid office to explain your situation and find out if it’s possible for you to get an unsubsidized loan.
Note: Because some states or schools use the EFC to determine a student’s eligibility for their aid programs, you could lose the opportunity for these sources of aid. So, do your best to persuade your parents to provide their information — explain to them that it doesn’t mean they have to support you, just that it opens up more forms of aid for you.
You may be asked to provide a written statement from your parents that they refuse to provide their information on your FAFSA form and that they no longer support you. “Support” includes allowing you to live in their home, covering you on their car or health insurance, giving you a car to drive on a regular basis, and paying your tuition or fees.
The financial aid office will then determine if you qualify for an unsubsidized loan. This decision is final and cannot be appealed to the Department of Education.
8. What if my non-U.S. citizen parents are afraid of providing information to FAFSA?
The FAFSA form doesn’t ask about your parents’ citizenship status, so reassure them that they should not be concerned. Their citizenship status will not affect your financial aid eligibility.
9. How do I fill out non-U.S. citizen parent information on FAFSA form?
Don’t worry if your parents are non-U.S. citizens and do not have a Social Security number or do not live in the United States or file taxes here. Here is how you should fill out the information asked in these situations.
- My parents do not have a Social Security number
On the FAFSA form, where you are asked to provide your parent’s Social Security number, simply enter “000000000” — no dashes — instead of the typical 9-digit Social Security number. Do NOT use your parent’s Taxpayer Identification Number for this purpose.
If your parents don’t have a Social Security number and they live in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or Palau, otherwise known as the “Freely Associated States” (FAS), they should enter “666” as the first three digits and leave the remaining six positions of the Social Security number field blank. Once your application is processed, the last six digits will be assigned to you. If you receive a 9-digit number beginning with “888” instead, simply replace the “888” with “666” and use the last six digits.
Note: Keep this number somewhere safe, so you can use it for your FAFSA renewal.
Also, as mentioned above, if your parent does not have a Social Security number, he or she won’t be able to create an FSA ID. In that case, you need to print out the signature page from your online form for your parent(s) to sign and then send it by mail to the address provided in the FAFSA form.
- My parents do not live in the United States
If your parents live in a country other than the United States, select “Foreign Country” as your parents’ state of legal residence.
- My parents do not file taxes in the United States
If your parents live in a foreign country and file taxes in that country, but not in the United States, select “Yes” where the FAFSA form asks whether your parents filed a Puerto Rican or foreign tax return.
You should convert the amounts on the foreign tax return into U.S. dollars, using the published exchange rate for the date closest to your FAFSA completion date. You can get the daily exchange rate here.
If your parents live in one of the FAS, they should enter the “Amount of Wages Earned” from their FAS where the FAFSA form asks for adjusted gross income.
- My parents do not file taxes
If your parent(s) don’t file taxes at all, select “Not going to file” where the FAFSA form asks whether the parent(s) have filed taxes. You will then be asked to provide information about how much your parent(s) earned from work instead of specific information from tax forms.
The bottom line
The FAFSA form is your gateway to financial aid, so be sure to get your parents’ information right. For more tips on how to complete your FAFSA form correctly and on time, check this FAFSA complete guide.
Susan Chu is the Content Director of The University Network. She likes to write about trends in higher education.