Financial aid administrators have the authority, through Section 480(d)(7) of the Higher Education Act, to change a student’s status from dependent to independent in cases involving unusual circumstances. Nationwide, approximately 2% of undergraduate students become independent through such dependency overrides. An analysis of the 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) suggests that only 0.5% of undergraduate students (0.9% of undergraduate students under age 24 as of December 31 of the award year) are independent because of a dependency override.
The US Department of Education has given guidance regarding situations that do and do not qualify as unusual circumstances that merit a dependency override. In particular, the following circumstances do not merit a dependency override, either alone or in combination:
- Parents refuse to contribute to the student’s education;
- Parents are unwilling to provide information on the application or for verification;
- Parents do not claim the student as a dependent for income tax purposes;
- Student demonstrates total self-sufficiency.
Note that all of these circumstances are largely discretionary in nature. A student cannot become independent just because the parents are unwilling to help pay for the student’s college education. Although these circumstances are not sufficient for a dependency override, they do not preclude it. Sometimes there are additional circumstances that occur in conjunction with these circumstances that do merit a dependency override. These can include the following:
- an abusive family environment (e.g., sexual, physical, or mental abuse or other forms of domestic violence)
- abandonment by parents
- incarceration or institutionalization of both parents
- parents lacking the physical or mental capacity to raise the child
- parents whereabouts unknown or parents cannot be located
- parents hospitalized for an extended period
- an unsuitable household (e.g., child removed from the household and placed in foster care)
- married student’s spouse dies or student gets divorced
Abandonment is the failure of the parent to provide financial support or to communicate with the child for a long time, generally understood to be a year or more. In custody cases this is a prerequisite for a court to deem the child abandoned by the parent and to order the parent’s parental rights terminated. Abandonment can also refer to physical abandonment, where the child is left on a doorstep or delivered to a hospital. So there are two key elements to the definition of abandonment: (1) no contact for at least a year, and (2) no support for at least a year. (Note that if a parent abandons a child and later reenters the child’s life, the courts would be very slow to restore parental rights, if at all. So if a student has had no contact with a parent for most of the student’s life, recent attempts to reconcile do not prevent a dependency override on the grounds of abandonment.)
An abusive family environment is often difficult to detect, especially if the abuse is more emotional than physical. Signs of an abusive family environment include the following:
- Kicking children and/or a spouse out of the house.
- Violence, including physical abuse against the children or the spouse.
- Sexual abuse.
- Emotional abuse.
- Use of abusive language, including name-calling.
- Failure to properly clothe or feed the family.
- Attempts to commit suicide by one or more family members.
- One or more family members running away from home.
- Parents rejecting and ridiculing the child, controlling all outside contact with the child, keeping the child home from school for weeks or months, deliberate humiliation of the child in front of others.
- The child is abusive to others.
Emotional abuse is more difficult to spot, because there aren’t overt physical signs. Some of the subtle signs include:
- Child has difficulty in forming relationships with others or in bonding with others.
- Child is extremely shy and lacks self confidence.
- Child exhibits fatigue and listless.
- Child is routinely pessimistic.
- Self injury.
- Self-deprecating remarks.
- Reluctant to go home.
- Constantly seeking attention.
- Bullying and hostile to others.
- Ridicules others.
- Repeated truancy and tardiness.
- Grades not consistent with child’s academic ability.
- Engaging in self-abusive activities, including alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, prostitution, and criminal activities.
Occasionally a student will have been kicked out of the house upon reaching the age of majority. This is not uncommon when the student’s parents are divorced and the student has an estranged relationship with the stepparent and the non-custodial parent is unwilling or unable to take in the student. Although the student’s self sufficiency is insufficient grounds for a dependency override, the financial aid administrator may be able to make a case for a dependency override on the grounds of abandonment. So when a family asks for a dependency override and mentions only the four prohibited conditions, dig deeper, as there may be unusual circumstances that do merit a dependency override.
Dependency overrides occur in one direction, from dependent to independent. Because of the way section 480(d)(7) of the Higher Education Act is written, financial aid administrators may not change a student from independent to dependent. (They can, however, cancel a dependency override approved by a different school, as a professional judgment decision at one school is not binding at another.)
Note that a student who qualifies as independent under section 480(d) of the Higher Education Act does not need to be self sufficient. For example, a student who is 24 years old or married still counts as independent even if he lives at home with his parents. This is true even if the student is receiving more than half his support from his parents. (The only exception is for a student who is independent only because of a child. Such a student must provide more than half the support of the child and continue to do so throughout the award year in order to be independent. If the student is not providing more than half his own support, the student cannot count as providing more than half the child’s support.)
Similarly, a student is not required to be self-supporting for the financial aid administrator to perform a dependency override.
Cash support from people other than the student’s parents should be reported as untaxed income on Worksheet B. (Cash support includes amounts paid by other people for bills in the student’s name. If the bills are not in the student’s name, the student has no legal responsibility to pay the bills and so the payments represent in-kind support and not cash support. For example, rent payments do not count as cash support unless the student’s name appears on the lease. In-kind support is not reported on the FAFSA.) Financial aid administrators may use professional judgment to include financial support received from the student’s parents and in-kind support from the parents and other people as untaxed income on Worksheets A and B.
A student acting as a legal guardian or foster parent to a child is not independent, since the student is not considered the child’s parent.
Occasionally a financial aid administrator will encounter a student who is enrolling during the spring semester and who will be 24 years old during that semester, but was 23 years old as of December 31. Such a student is not automatically independent. It is inappropriate to perform a dependency override for such students absent of any other unusual circumstances, as section 480(d)(1) of the Higher Education Act is quite clear. It is likewise inappropriate to perform dependency overrides for students who are close to qualifying as independent, such as students born on January 1.
The old “Bright-Line Test” for self-sufficiency was repealed in 1992, in part because it was prone to manipulation and abuse. This test considered a student to be independent if the student was totally self-sufficient, had not been claimed as an exemption on an income tax return and demonstrated total non-parental resources of at least $4,000 per year for two calendar years preceding the award year. It is inappropriate to use this definition for dependency override decisions, as self-sufficiency is no longer sufficient grounds for a dependency override, per DCL GEN-03-07.