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What to do when parents are divorced, and in situations with step-parents, foster care, etc.

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if you are a dependent and you are not living in a traditional two-parent home where both parents are married it can be very confusing to figure out which parent or which parents household should fill out the financial aid forms even though which parent fills it out can have a major impact on your college costs so if your parents are divorced or separated the parent with whom you have lived the majority of time over the last 12 months is the parent who should fill out the financial aid forms and report their income and asset information this can lead to some inequities unfortunately particularly in cases where one parent earns a lot more money than another parent some families want the parent who makes the least amount of money to file the financial aid forms because they know that that means they'll get the most financial aid from the colleges and universities however the rule is that if your parents have joint custody of you the parent who has provided the majority of your financial support over the last 12 months should be the one who files the financial aid forms whether or not they make more or less money than the other parent some schools that use or require the CSS profile will require both parents to fill out the financial aid forms whether or not they are divorced or separated they use something in addition to the profile itself called the non-custodial profile which basically just means that they're requiring the information from the other parent as well so let's say your parents are divorced or separated and you live the majority of the time with your mother and she makes about sixty thousand dollars a year in adjusted gross income and your father makes half a million dollars in adjusted gross income at a FAFSA only school they will only see your mother's income and asset information but at a school like duke university or Carleton College which requires the CS us profile and the non-custodial profile they will require that both your mother and father report their income and asset information so this means at that CSS profile school that uses the non-custodial profile your college costs are going to be a lot higher than at the FAFSA only schools because they're looking at both parents information including the parent who is a lot wealthier if you are living the majority of time or receiving the majority of your financial support from a parent who has remarried your stepparents information must also be included on the financial aid forms and any prenup arrangement that your parent and step parent have does not affect this rule so let's say your dad married a wealthy heiress and before they got married she had your dad fill out a prenup arrangement that said she didn't have to pay for your college education nonetheless regardless of that prenup the financial aid rules say that her income and assets as well as your father's income assets must be reported on the financial aid forms even if your dad didn't make much money they're going to look at the millions and millions of dollars that you're wealthy heiress stepmom has and they're not going to give you any financial aid even though your dad is paying for all of your college expenses if you are adopted your adoptive parents are considered the same thing as your biological parents for purposes of financial aid so they must fill out the FAFSA and CSS profile and report their income and assets however foster parents are not considered parents for purposes of financial aid so they do not have to report their income and asset information at all and do not have to fill out the FAFSA and CSS profile if you're living with a legal guardian your legal guardian does not have to fill out the financial aid forms also if you're living with a grandparent they also do not have to fill out the financial aid forms unless they have legally adopted you or a court of law requires them to support you financially so basically if you live with foster parents legal guardians or grandparents you are considered independent and that means no parents have to fill out the financial aid forms you are the only one who will fill that salsa or CSS profile out so you only need to report your own income and assets on these financial aid forms so a lot of times I get asked whether a student can be considered independent so that colleges and universities are not looking at parent income and asset information in making their decisions about financial aid there are actually very specific criteria for when you can be considered an independent student first of all you if you are at least 24 years of age you can be considered independent also if you are a graduate or professional student who is pursuing a course of study beyond a bachelor's degree you are independent also if you are married you are independent or if you have a child or legal dependent of your own likewise you might be a veteran of the arms for armed forces or one of the service academies as long as you were honorably discharged and we're on active duty another reason you might be independent is if you are a ward of the court or if you are an orphan that is both of your biological parents are deceased and last but not least for various reasons you might be considered an emancipated minor by the state in which you live so those are all various reasons for why you might be able to be considered an independent rather than a dependent student for purposes of financial aid