How to Determine Your Dependency Status in 3 Simple Steps

Knowing your dependency status beforehand will help you when it’s time to file your FAFSA. As you know, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps the government and your college determine how much tuition you and your family can afford to pay versus what you will still need to attend. Finding out if you’re a dependent or independent student can seem tricky, which is why I want to break down and demystify this process.

1. Go to the Federal Student Aid Website

Each year, the FAFSA will ask you a series of questions that will help them determine your dependency status. The questions vary slightly from year-to-year, but for the most part they stay the same. Once you have answered about 10 yes/no questions, the FAFSA will assess whether you can continue the process as an independent or dependent student. Some of the questions include:

  • “Will you be 24 or older by Dec. 31 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid?”
  • “At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?”
  • “Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?”

It’s important to answer these questions as honestly as you can. The FAFSA is developed and processed by an office of the U.S. Department of Education, and lying about your information to the government is a quick way to land in hot water. It may seem easier at first to lie to avoid having your parents submit their information too. When (not “if”) you get caught, you could get fined up to $20,000 and/or spend up to five years in prison. In addition, you will be responsible for paying back any aid you already received.

If you answer “yes” to one or more of the FAFSA’s questions, you’ll be considered an independent student. Conversely, answering “no” to all of the questions means that you are a dependent student and will need to have your parents provide their information on your FAFSA as well. Even if you don’t live with your parents and/or they don’t claim you on their taxes, you’re still considered a dependent if you answered “no” to every question. You can check out the full questionnaire on the Federal Student Aid website to learn more about where you stand.

2. Ask Your Parents

As a dependent student, you’ll need to ask your parents to submit their personal information. Your parents will provide the same information that you have to, such as:

  • Identity: This includes their name, Social Security number, and date of birth.
  • Living Situation: This refers to marital status, what state/country they live in (their permanent address), and household size.
  • Finances: They’ll be asked to provide tax information, certain assets, certain untaxed income, and other documents that reflect their finances.

Again, you’ll want to fill out the FAFSA as honestly and accurately as possible. To do this, it’s important to know if you need to just one or both of your parents to fill out the FAFSA. The infographic below details who qualifies as a parent and who needs to provide their information.

Dependency Status Parent Infographic

Created by the Federal Student Aid office. Click on infographic to enlarge.

Once you know who needs to fill out the FAFSA, go here to learn about the specific financial information the FAFSA will ask for and how to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT).

3. Special Circumstances

The Federal Student Aid office realizes that not everything can be determined by a yes or no question. Yes, you will have to answer those questions regardless of your relationship with your parents. Nonetheless, you’ll have opportunity to indicate that you can’t provide your parents’ information. There are several situations that the Federal Student Aid office qualifies as “special circumstances” for dependent students:

  • “Your parents are incarcerated.”
  • “You have left home due to an abusive family environment.”
  • “You do not know where your parents are and are unable to contact them (and you have not been adopted).”
  • “You are older than 21 but not yet 24, are unaccompanied, and are either homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless.”

Dependent students in one of these scenarios can submit the FAFSA without their parents’ information. If you do this, your FAFSA will not be finalized until your college’s financial aid office has determined your dependency status. After you submit your FAFSA, you must meet with your school’s financial aid department and provide documentation that can be used as proof of your unique circumstance. This proof includes legal documents, letters from a school counselor/social worker, or other evidence that confirms your status. The financial aid office has the final say as to whether or not you are an independent student. Consequently, you can’t appeal their decision to the U.S. Department of Education once it has been made.

Federal grants and scholarships are great ways to pay for school. Now that you know what your dependency status is, you can you file your FAFSA correctly and receive as much financial aid as possible!

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About the Author Nikki Martens

Nikki will be graduating with a Bachelor’s in Communications, Media, & Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University in August of 2016. As a transfer student, she has first-hand knowledge of what it is like to navigate the systems of community colleges, private, and public four-year institutions. Nikki aims to use this academic experience in her writing to help others excel in their collegiate careers. She is powered by coffee and when she isn’t writing, she enjoys spending time with animals by dog sitting and volunteering at a local cat shelter.