FAFSA Tutorial: Divorced or Separated Parents

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It’s not uncommon for students to be from a household that is not comprised of a biological mother and father. Perhaps there’s one biological parent and a stepparent, or the student’s parents are separated but not divorced. Maybe the student lives with a grandparent or aunt. These situations can be confusing when it comes to knowing whose information you need to include when filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Here’s an in-depth breakdown to help you figure out what information should be included on the FAFSA for your particular situation.

Who Is Considered a Parent?

A student’s parents are either biological parents or individuals who have legally adopted the student. This does not include legal guardians, foster parents, grandparents, or other relatives, unless they have legally adopted the student.

If a student lives with someone who has not legally adopted them, the support provided to the student must be reported as untaxed income to the student on the FAFSA, regardless of the student’s dependency status.

Foster care payments are typically not reported as income on the FAFSA.

Parents Who Are Married to Each Other

If a student’s parents are both living and married to each other, select “Married or Remarried” on the FAFSA, and provide information about both of them. This applies to legally married same-sex couples as well.

Parents Who Are Unmarried

If a student’s parents are divorced or separated, but are living together, the student must provide financial information for both parents.

If a student’s parents are living together, but are not currently, or have never been married to each other, select “Unmarried and both parents living together” on the FAFSA, and provide information on both parents regardless of gender.

Parents Who Are Separated

This situation can be a little confusing when filling out the FAFSA. Simply living apart does not constitute a legal separation. For the purposes of the FAFSA, parents who have an informal separation cannot live together and should maintain separate residences. (Different floors of the same house do not count as separate residences; living in temporary housing, such as a hotel room, does not count either.) You may be required to furnish legal documentation if you live in a state that requires it. 

If the parents are separated, but live together, they must select “Married or Remarried” when filing the FAFSA.

If the student’s legal parents are divorced or separated, and do not live together, the parent with whom the student primarily lives (often called the custodial parent) should complete the FAFSA. If the parents have 50/50 custody, the FAFSA should be completed by the parent who provides more financial support. This is not necessarily the parent who claims the student on their tax return.

If a parent is living with but not married to another person, that person’s information should not be reflected on the FAFSA.

Who Is the Custodial Parent?

The FAFSA considers the custodial parent the parent with whom the student lived with the most during the previous 12 months. If the number of days and nights with each parent is equal, or the divorce occurred less than a year ago, the custodial parent is the parent who provided more financial support during the previous 12 months.

If no determination can be made as to who is the custodial parent, the college financial aid administrator will decide which parent is responsible for completing the FAFSA. Usually, they will choose the parent with the greater income.

NOTE: Financial support is not limited to child support. It includes food, clothing, housing, medical and dental care, car payments, etc.


If the custodial parent is remarried as of the date of FAFSA submission, the student should answer the parental questions about the parent and the person to whom the parent is married (the stepparent).

In this situation, the student reports the stepparent’s tax information the same as they would a biological or adoptive parent. If the custodial parent remarried in 2017, the student would still report the stepparent’s tax information from the prior-prior year (even though the marriage hadn’t occurred yet), because you default to marital status as of the date the FAFSA is filed.

Providing this information is required, regardless of whether or not the stepparent plans to help pay for the student’s education. Prenuptial agreements have no impact on this requirement. Filing the FAFSA does not obligate a parent or stepparent to repay the student’s federal financial aid. Federal student loans taken out in the student’s name are the sole responsibility of the student to repay. They are not subject to the defense of infancy, and do not appear on a parent’s credit history.

Federal Parent PLUS Loans, however, are taken out by a parent and will be reported on the parent’s credit history, as will any private student loans cosigned by the parent.

If the parents do not complete the FAFSA, the student will not be able to get any need-based federal student aid.

Stepparent’s Responsibility If Custodial Parent Dies

If the custodial parent dies, the stepparent’s information is no longer reported on the FAFSA, even if the student lives with the stepparent, unless the stepparent has legally adopted the student. In the event of the death of the custodial parent, the non-custodial parent’s information is provided on the FAFSA, even if the student remains living with the stepparent. If the student has no meaningful contact with the noncustodial parent, and receives no support from the noncustodial parent, they may seek a dependency override from the college’s financial aid administrator.

In this situation, any financial support the stepparent provides to the student is reported as untaxed income on the student’s FAFSA in the answer to the questions, “Money received, or paid on your behalf (e.g., bills), not reported elsewhere on this form.”

If the stepparent provides more than one-half support for a stepchild, regardless of where the stepchild resides, the stepparent may include the child as part of their household size. If the stepparent’s legal child will be enrolled in college on at least a half-time basis in the coming academic year, the stepchild may also be included as part of the number in college.

Increasing Aid Eligibility

A student will sometimes qualify for more need-based aid if the parents are divorced or separated and the student lives in the household with the lower income. Note that the living arrangements should be genuine. College financial aid administrators are experienced in detecting fraud on the FAFSA, and may request proof such as a divorce decree, separation agreement, utility bills, or apartment rental agreements.

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