How to Determine Dependency Status in 3 Simple Steps

family dependency status

First off, dependency status simply refers to figuring out if you need to submit one, both, or neither of your parents’ financial information as well as your own when filing the FAFSA. And knowing this beforehand will help in expediting the process, which is always a plus.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps the government and colleges determine how much tuition you and your family can afford to pay versus what you will still need to pay 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

The FAFSA asks a series of questions to help determine dependency status. These questions vary slightly each year, but overall they stay relatively the same. After about 10 yes/no questions, the FAFSA determines if 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 possible. The FAFSA is developed and processed by the U.S. Department of Education, and lying about information to the government is a quick way to land in hot water. It may initially seem easier to lie to avoid having your parents submit their information too. When (not “if”) you get caught, you could be fined up to $20,000 and/or spend up to five years in prison. Additionally, any aid already received must be paid back.

You’ll be considered an independent student if you answer “yes” to one or more of the FAFSA’s questions. Conversely, answering “no” to all of the questions translates to being a dependent student, and therefore 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. 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: name, Social Security number, and date of birth
  • Living Situation: marital status, what state/country they live in (a permanent address), and household size.
  • Finances: tax information, certain assets and untaxed income, and other documents reflecting their finances.

Again, 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, answering those questions is required regardless of your relationship with your parents. Nonetheless, there are opportunities within the FAFSA to indicate if you can’t provide your parents’ information. There are several situations that the Federal Student Aid office qualifies as “special circumstances” for dependent students:

  • Incarcerated parents
  • Left home due to an abusive environment
  • Do not know where your parents are, and can’t contact them (and you have not been adopted)
  • Older than 21 but not yet 24, unaccompanied, and either homeless or self-supporting/at risk of being homeless

Dependent students in one of these scenarios can submit the FAFSA without their parents’ information. However, doing so means that the FAFSA will not be finalized until your college’s financial aid office has determined your dependency status. After submitting the FAFSA, 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 supporting evidence. The financial aid office has the final say of your status as dependent or independent student. Consequently, their decision can’t be appealed to the U.S. Department of Education once it has been made.

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

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About the Author Nikki Martens

Nikki holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication, Media, and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University, and became a transfer-student expert in the process. Currently Nikki assists with the content development process for YesCollege, through gathering information and writing about the degree programs in our databases.