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Divorce and College: Prepping for Admissions

For divorced parents, college admissions can be a headache. Read our blog for more information about preparing for college, financial aid, and more.

Applying for college financial aid is complicated no matter what your situation, but for children of divorced parents, it’s even more so. The amount of federal financial aid a student is eligible for can change significantly depending on which parent the university aid formulas consider to be the primary provider.

Providers

In families where only one parent takes care of the child, it’s easy to know who to list, but for families with joint custody arrangements, decisions about which parent the child lives with the majority of time or which parent provides more financial support can have major implications for college financial aid. 

What’s more, many private schools calculate a student’s financial aid differently than educational institutions that rely solely on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ( FAFSA). Parents might need to consider different financial aid application strategies for different schools.

How FAFSA Looks At Divorce

The FAFSA is what the federal government and most colleges and universities rely on to formulate students’ financial aid packages. The FAFSA asks about the parents’ marital status, but FAFSA’s definitions aren’t the same as the legal definitions of marriage and divorce or separation.

What FAFSA cares about is whether a student’s legal parents (biological or adoptive) live together in the same household. If they live together — regardless of whether they are unmarried, separated, or divorced — FAFSA requires information about both parents . Parents who are legally married, but lead separate lives and live in separate households are not considered married for FAFSA purposes. In this case, and in the case of divorced parents who live separately, the student only needs to provide information about the parent he or she lived with the most or who provided the most financial support in the past 12 months. FAFSA calls this parent the “custodial parent,” regardless of who has legal custody.

Students With Divorced Parents

When a student lives equally with both divorced parents and receives equal financial support from both, choosing the parent with the lower income for the parental financial section on the FAFSA creates the best chance at qualifying for maximum financial aid. But technically, the student needs to live with that parent at least one more day of the year or receive slightly more financial support from that parent to list them as their custodial parent.

FAFSA considers child support and alimony, however, so having the student live with the less well-off parent won’t necessarily help increase financial aid awards if that parent receives considerable child support and/or alimony from the better-off parent. Students in borderline situations can use the College Board’s expected family contribution calculator to see which parent to list as the custodial parent on the FAFSA if they want to maximize their aid eligibility.

Another important step is to submit the FAFSA as early as possible because some aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

FAFSA

If your parents are divorced or separated, how you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form will depend on whether they live together or not.

For FAFSA form purposes, your married parents are separated if they are considered legally separated by a state, or if they’re legally married but have chosen to live separate lives, including living in separate households, as though they were not married.

When two married persons live as a married couple but are separated by physical distance (or have separate households), they’re considered married for FAFSA® form purposes.

Divorced or Separated Parents Who Don’t Live Together
If your parents are divorced or separated and don’t live together, answer the questions about the parent with whom you lived more during the past 12 months.

If you lived the same amount of time with each divorced or separated parent, give answers about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months or during the most recent 12 months that you actually received support from a parent.

Divorced or Separated Parents Who Live Together
If your divorced parents live together, you’ll indicate their marital status as “Unmarried and both legal parents living together," and you will answer questions about both of them on the FAFSA® form.

If your separated parents live together, you’ll indicate their marital status as “married or remarried" (NOT “divorced or separated"), and you will answer questions about both of them on the FAFSA® form.

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