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Independent Student Status

The Federal requirements for independent student status, the student must satisfy at least one of the following criteria to be considered independent:

  • The student is 24 year of age or older by December 31 of the award year.
  • The student is an orphan or ward of the court or was a ward of the court until the student reached the age of 18.
  • The student is a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States.
  • The student is a graduate or professional student.
  • The student is married.
  • The student has legal dependents other than a spouse. (Dependent means receiving more than half the individual's support from the student.)
If the student doesn't satisfy any of these requirements, then the student is automatically a dependent student.

The only criterion listed above which is under the student's control is marriage. However, students who are contemplating married should be aware of the following:

  • What counts is the student's marital status as of the date he or she submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If the student gets married after that date, he or she will not be considered independent until the subsequent year. Federal law specifically prohibits schools from changing a student's marital status mid-year.

  • Changing the student's status to independent through marriage might not increase eligibility for financial aid. A married student is no longer required to provide financial information for his/her parents. Instead, the married student must provide financial information for his/her spouse. If the spouse is wealthier than the student's parents, this may result in a decrease in financial aid eligibility.

Financial aid administrators do have the authority to override a student's default dependency determination, but only in unusual circumstances and with proper documentation. Students who are faced with obstinate parents should talk to the financial aid administrator at their school, but be prepared for the aid administrator to turn them down. Parents who refuse to pay don’t constitute an unusual circumstance.

The financial aid administrator would love to be able to help every student, but they know that if they don't have sufficient justification for using professional judgment, they will be penalized for it at the next audit. Moreover, if the aid administrator made a practice of declaring students independent, many more parents would start refusing to pay.

Some of the more common situations in which financial aid administrators may be willing to override the dependency determination include:

  • Parents incarcerated or presumed dead.

  • Student was sexually or physically abused by the parents or can document a hostile or neglectful relationship with his/her parents. The student will need to provide copies of protection from abuse orders, court documents, social worker reports, doctor reports, police records, and letters from clergy, as appropriate.

  • Parents cannot be located. For example, a student who emigrated to the US without his/her parents, became a US citizen, and has not been able to contact his/her parents (or even know whether they are still alive).

  • Student legally adopted by their current guardian.

The financial aid administrator will want the student to provide a signed statement describing the unusual circumstances. The financial aid administrator will also want evidence that the student is genuinely self-supporting, such as copies of tax returns and pay stubs. (Refusing to provide this information will result in a denial of the request for a change in dependency status.) If the student does not demonstrate an income that is sufficient to cover basic needs, the aid administrator will become suspicious and require additional documentation. (If the student's earnings aren't even close to the poverty line, they're going to want a lot of documentation of how the student is physically able to live.) They will also be suspicious if the student is still living at home or if the student stopped living at home recently. They will want to see copies of cancelled rent checks. (Having the student pay rent to the parents will not help.) The aid administrator will want all statements confirmed by third-party documentation.

Given this documentation, the financial aid administrator will determine whether or not the student is independent. The financial aid administrator's decision is final, and is not subject to appeal. Putting pressure on the school administration or calling the US Department of Education will have no effect, other than to irritate the financial aid administrator.

 

 
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