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When children of divorce graduate high school and are accepted into college, it’s important to fill out a FAFSA as early as possible. This is because a FAFSA will determine the amount of aid a student is eligible for; including federal grants, some scholarships, federal loans, and work-study opportunities. While sending in a FAFSA as early as possible is important, navigating this procedure after a divorce can be difficult and confusing. Not to fret! There are a few tips for filling out a FAFSA after a divorce that can help both parents and children as they begin to plan for college—ensuring they’re getting the best kind of aid.
Determine If the Student Is Independent
Independence is determined by FAFSA in a much different manner than independence in the eyes of the IRS. Basically, if a student is 24 years of age or older, he/she is considered to be independent. If a student is independent, the parents’ tax information is not needed. For all students that are under the age of 24, tax information from at least one parent is essential in estimating the amount of aid a student is eligible for.
Determine the Custodial Parent
The custodial parent isn’t necessarily the parent who has legal custody. The custodial parent is the parent whose tax information should be included on the FAFSA. If the custodial parent is remarried, the stepparent’s info should also be included for each question except for the question surrounding the highest level of education attained by parents. This should only include the biological or adoptive parents, and not the stepparents. Parents who are closely tied as custodial parent should choose which parent to make the custodial parent wisely, so as to receive the most aid. In such cases, this would be the parent with the lowest income. It’s wise to only list the information of this one parent (and stepparent if necessary), as oversharing—listing all incomes of both parents and stepparents could have a negative impact on the amount of aid the student receives.
Be Prepared With Documents
The FAFSA forms will ask about the date of the divorce, and some financial aid offices will ask for proof of the divorce. If the divorce was recent, there may be tax complications, as the previous year’s tax forms will be used, and they may not reflect the divorce. This will require additional paperwork to remedy with the financial aid office—typically requiring W-2 forms from both parents. In addition to taxable income, the custodial parent will need to report the amount of child support that was paid or received. This is different from alimony, which is included in taxable income, and shouldn’t be reported twice.
Determine the Role of the Non-Custodial Parent
While the custodial parent’s tax information will be used to determine the amount of aid received by the student, it may also be necessary for the non-custodial parent to chip in. Determining the role of the non-custodial parent can help ease some financial strain and burden. If the student is able to get enough aid to cover some of the expenses, but needs additional support with tuition, books, or living expenses; perhaps this is something the non-custodial parent can help with. This will need to be agreed upon and arranged by the parents ahead of time to avoid conflicts that could arise in the future when costs arise.
Seek Support With Difficult Conversations
The costs of college can cause conflict between co-parents as they begin to plan for their children’s futures. While one parent may earn a higher income, this doesn’t make them legally responsible to pay for the costs of a higher education for the kids. When parents disagree about who should pay for college, this can create conflict—leading to difficult conversations that may trigger strong emotions, and even feelings surrounding the divorce. Having a family therapist to help work through the difficult conversations, and arrangements surrounding paying for college can be most beneficial for both parents and children after a divorce
Getting through a divorce is difficult, and parents may not always see eye to eye. The important factors to focus on while figuring out how to pay for college is the well-being of the child, and doing everything possible to help the child receive as much support in reaching his/her future goals as possible.