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A student cannot simply declare himself or herself to be an independent student because the student is self-supporting, the student no longer lives with his or her parents, the student’s parents refuse to contribute to his or her education and/or the student has reached the legal drinking age.
Sometimes students have unusual circumstances that they feel should qualify them as an independent student even though they technically fall under the dependent student classification. Such students should contact the college’s financial aid administrator to ask for a dependency override. College financial aid administrators have the authority to override a student’s dependency status from dependent to independent, on a case-by-case basis in unusual circumstances.
Unusual circumstances include, but are not limited to, situations in which the student’s parents are incarcerated or incapacitated, the whereabouts of the student’s parents are unknown (abandonment) or the student left home because of an abusive family environment.
Unusual circumstances can also include death of the custodial parent. Normally, the noncustodial parent would become responsible for completing the FAFSA, even if the student continues to live with the stepparent. (Unless the stepparent has legally adopted the student, the stepparent is counted as a parent on the FAFSA only while he or she remains married to the custodial parent.) But, sometimes the student has not had any meaningful contact with or support from the noncustodial parent for a long time and the parent’s whereabouts are unknown. In such a situation, a college financial aid administrator might decide to treat an otherwise dependent student as an independent student. Any support the student receives from his or her stepparent will be counted as untaxed income to the student.
Most of the unusual circumstances involve an involuntary dissolution of the family. Under federal law, parents are considered as having the primary responsibility for paying for a child’s college education. The federal government steps in only when the student and parents are unable to pay, not when they are unwilling to pay. The student may feel that he or she is financially self-sufficient and able to live on his or her own. But that doesn’t eliminate the parent’s responsibility to help their student apply for financial aid and to help pay for his or her college education.
Requesting a Dependency Override
To request a dependency override, send a letter to the college’s financial aid administrator asking for a dependency override. Summarize the circumstances that justify the dependency override. Provide copies of independent third-party documentation of the special circumstances, such as letters from social workers, clergy, teachers, guidance counselors, doctors or others who are familiar with the student’s situation. Police reports documenting domestic violence and abuse can also be helpful.
Dependency overrides are for one year at a time. Financial aid administrators must verify that the unusual circumstances that justified the dependency override in a previous year continue to apply.
Financial Aid Administrator’s Decision is Final
The decision whether a student qualifies for a dependency override is made by the college’s financial aid administrator. This decision is final. There is no appeal beyond the financial aid administrator. Neither the college’s president nor the U.S. Department of Education has the legal authority to overturn the decision of the college’s financial aid administrator concerning a professional judgment review or dependency override. The authority to perform dependency overrides is specifically restricted to financial aid administrators in 20 USC 1087(d)(1)(I).
When a student indicates on the FAFSA that he or she has an unusual circumstance, the student is not automatically considered to be an independent student. The questions concerning unusual circumstances merely provide a mechanism for the student to complete the FAFSA despite not having access to parental information. The college’s financial aid administrator must still review the student’s situation and determine whether a dependency override is justified.
Appeals are considered on a case-by-case basis and are decided by each individual college. Not all appeals will be granted.
A dependent student who does not provide parental information will not qualify for federal student aid, other than an unsubsidized Federal Stafford loan. However, the student might still be eligible for state aid or financial aid from the school.
Insufficient Justification for a Dependency Override
None of the following circumstances are sufficient justification, even in combination, for a college financial aid administrator to perform a dependency override:
- A student cannot qualify as an independent student because the parents choose to not claim the student as a dependent on their federal income tax return, not even if the student demonstrates total financial self-sufficiency.
- A student cannot qualify as an independent student because the parents refuse to contribute to the student’s education.
- A student cannot qualify as an independent student because the parents refuse to provide information on the FAFSA.
- A student cannot qualify as an independent student because the parents refuse to participate in verification.
- A student cannot qualify as an independent student because the student’s parents live in another country.
The old “bright-line test” allowed a student to become independent by not being claimed on his or her parents’ federal income tax returns for two years and by earning at least $4,000 a year from sources other than his or her parents. Congress repealed this provision in 1992 because it was prone to abuse.
The following screenshots show the sections of FAFSA on the Web that are related to dependency overrides and special circumstances.
The first screenshot asks whether the student is able to provide parental information. If the student is unable to provide parental information, this will trigger additional questions about special circumstances.
The next screenshot asks the student to confirm that he or she has a special circumstance, after providing some details concerning which circumstances do and do not qualify as a special circumstance.
If the student confirms that he or she has a special circumstance, the next screenshot explains that only the college’s financial aid administrator has the authority to decide whether to treat a dependent student as though he or she is an independent student.
If the student says that he or she does not have a special circumstance, but still cannot provide parental information, the next screenshot indicates that the student may be eligible only for the unsubsidized Federal Stafford loan.