The FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the form that students must fill out to get financial aid for college. For those who have not yet experienced the joy of filling out the FAFSA, let me tell you, you are in for a treat. And by “treat” I mean extreme pain. For divorced families, it can be even more challenging. Here are some tips:
First, if you are living in the same home as your child’s other parent, whether you are married, unmarried, separated or divorced, you fill out the FAFSA using both parents’ information. If both parents are not living together, you only use the information from the custodial parent on the FAFSA. The term “custodial parent” means the parent with whom a child resides the majority of the time. If the parents share 50/50 custody then you would use the information from the parent who contributed most to the child’s support for the year. In Colorado, we use the phrase 50/50 custody, but since parenting is allocated based on the number of overnights, and there are an uneven number of overnights in most years, it takes very specific drafting to ensure a true 50/50 custody arrangement in this state.
If the custodial parent is remarried, you must also include step-parent financial information on the FAFSA. If the custodial parent is simply co-habiting with another person, their financial information is not included. Remember that Colorado recognizes common law marriage. This may factor into the question of whether the custodial parent is “remarried” for purposes of including step-parent information on the FAFSA. There had better be a clear intention on the part of both the custodial parent and their significant other to be married before anyone even thinks about including the significant other’s financial information on the FAFSA. Otherwise, you are including income on the FAFSA that doesn’t need to be there.
The best tip I can give families about how to approach the FAFSA after divorce is to think about it in advance. Talk about it when negotiating the terms of the divorce. If parents are able to look over the form, consider and agree on how best to allocate college costs in the divorce, then filling out the FAFSA should be less daunting. In addition, a discussion in advance can make sensitive issues like sharing of financial information, social security numbers and tax returns less difficult when the time comes to think about college.