Divorce and Financial Aid: How Does It Work?

A separated couple argues.

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If you’re a divorced parent or a parent who is going through a divorce, you may feel apprehensive about the college financial aid application season. Yet staying informed will help your child get the best financial assistance and minimize their loan burden so that they can stay on a healthy financial path.

Learn more about how to approach the financial aid process when you’re going through a divorce, and how upcoming changes might impact your child’s financial aid application.

Key Takeaways

  • The custodial parent typically provides financial information for federal financial aid calculations.
  • The definition of the custodial parent will change with the 2024-2025 FAFSA from the parent with more physical custody to the one providing more financial support.
  • Both parents may be required to provide financial information.
  • A financial advisor can help you manage the divorce and college application processes.

Divorce and College

Both navigating a divorce and paying for a child’s college can present significant financial challenges. Divorce rates are on the rise among parents who are in their 50s and 60s, which is about when their children may be going to college, Lili A. Vasileff, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst at Wealth Protection Management in Connecticut, told The Balance.

As an example, Vasileff said one of her cases involved a married couple who put three children through college. As their fourth child approached college age, the couple decided to divorce. The father believed that the couple should pay for the fourth child’s tuition as well. The mother felt more anxious about living on her share of the divided savings and suggested their son take out loans.

“The cost of divorce while your child is on the cusp of college entry can erode liquid savings, sets people on edge, and depletes retirement assets,” Vasileff said. “There’s a shifting of priorities.”

Vasileff offered a potential solution: The son could apply for financial aid, and the parents could help repay those loans with monthly payments when finances were more secure. The key is balancing your current financial security with what benefits your child’s long-term financial security.

Are Parents Legally Obligated To Pay for College?

Generally, married parents aren’t obligated by state law to pay for college. But for divorced parents in some states, it’s more complicated. Divorced parents may have to provide financial support during their child’s college years. Below, find some examples of state laws on the topic.

  • California: Parents are only obligated to support a child until age 18, sometimes 19 if the child is still in high school. However, parents can voluntarily legally commit to paying for college.
  • Massachusetts: Courts may order parents to contribute to educational expenses for dependents ages 18 to 23. This amount can be no more than the “excess of fifty percent of the undergraduate, in-state resident costs of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.”
  • Iowa: A court may order divorced parents to pay a child’s college expenses based in part on the reasonable cost of attending an in-state college.
  • Oregon: Allows the court to require divorced or separated parents to pay support for children under age 21. One or both parents aren’t obligated to pay all college costs, but a court can order support if parents and/or children don’t agree.

Vasileff said some U.S. states enacted “college clauses” because child support typically ended at the age of majority (such as 18 or 21). “This legal change was intended to prevent parents from walking away without first proving they didn’t have financial means to help,” Vasileff said. “Amended divorce laws gave courts authority to require parents to contribute to college expenses if warranted by the child’s interests and the case’s circumstances.”

Each state works a little differently, but in most cases, they rely on formulas that take into account the child’s situation including:

  • Parent incomes and other minor children
  • Full-time or part-time enrollment
  • The child’s aptitudes
  • Academic progress
  • The child's ability to work while attending school
  • Other financial resources including financial aid


To learn more about your legal obligations to pay for college, speak with a family law attorney in your state.

Filling Out the FAFSA

When divorced parents don’t live together, only one parent completes the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Families complete this form if they’re looking for federal aid or loans, but completing FAFSA can also qualify them for state aid.

Currently, the parent completing the financial aid applications (called the custodial parent) is the parent with whom the student lived with the most the previous year. The FAFSA does not include the non-custodial parent’s income and assets. If there’s a perfect 50-50 split of custody, you report the income of the parent currently providing the most financial support.


For the 2024-25 FAFSA, the definition of “custodial parent” will change to “the parent who provides the greater portion of the student’s financial support.”

Filling Out the CSS Profile

Some schools require parents to fill out a second form called the CSS, or College Scholarship Service Profile. This qualifies students for aid from the college or university. The CSS is required at more than 100 institutions, primarily private schools including Yale University, Stanford University, Skidmore College, and Reed College.

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS may use both biological parents’ incomes and assets, not just the custodial parent's. Check your college’s financial aid website to find out whether it’s required. In some cases, a child might be able to request a waiver.

How School Aid Policies Differ

In addition to the FAFSA, CSS, or both, schools may have their own requirements for institutional applications and awards. However, in most cases, the school hopes to learn of all the support available to a child.

“For some schools, a high-earning noncustodial parent disqualifies students from aid, while others don’t look at the noncustodial parent’s earnings,” Julie Gross, co-owner of College Financial Consultants, told The Balance in a phone interview.


Some scholarships offer aid to children of divorced parents, such as the Divorce Matters Scholarship, which is offered to Colorado high-school seniors and current college students attending Colorado higher education.

Steps for Ensuring Your Child Gets Financial Aid

While there’s no guarantee your child will receive financial aid, you can take steps to improve their chances of securing loans or scholarships while maintaining your own financial health.

Address Financial Support for Education in Agreements

First, you can address financial support for education in your divorce or separation agreement. For example, you could include provisions that defer cost-splitting decisions until your child reaches college age, or agree to a cap at a state university’s cost.

Or you might simply include provisions that require each parent to prioritize the child’s attendance by fully cooperating with filling out financial aid forms and providing required documentation.

Communicate With Colleges

As soon as you know you’re divorcing, contact the financial aid office at your child’s schools of choice. The schools can provide guidance on their specific requirements regarding your situation.

If your family experiences a change in marital status while the child is in college, let the college's financial aid office know immediately because the school may be able to offer additional aid, Gross said.

Consider Pros and Cons of Remarriage

Currently, if you remarry, the custodial parent’s stepparent’s information is included on the FAFSA and included in the household. This continues to be the case for the 2024-2025 FAFSA.

If a divorced parent gets remarried while their child is approaching or is college age, the parent's new spouse's income may be included in financial aid calculations. If the financially supporting parent remarried as of the FAFSA filing date, the stepparent’s income, assets, and dependents must also be reported.

Meet With Professional Advisors

Vasileff recommended meeting with a financial advisor who can give you unbiased and professional advice regarding how to pay for college as a divorcee. Meeting with a neutral third party can reduce the role of emotions in decision-making. A professional advisor can, for example, collect both parents' tax returns and set expectations around the possible aid.

Discuss 529s and Other Assets 

Consider how assets in your child’s name, such as a UGMA/UTMA, or 529 plan ownership can count against financial aid, depending on ownership.

Some upcoming changes may also impact 529 ownership, which may be able to change in a divorce in some circumstances. In 2024-2025, qualified distributions from 529 plans owned by a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or other extended family members no longer affect a student’s aid eligibility.

Factor In Your Retirement Plans

In some cases, one or both parents may want to consider a Parent PLUS loan, in which they take out a loan to pay for their child’s education. However, Parent PLUS loans are potentially costly, financial planner Michael Matheny, founder of Stellar Financial Health, told The Balance in a phone interview.

But if one divorced parent was out of the workforce or had limited future earning power, they may want to prioritize their own retirement wealth-building. “It doesn’t serve your best interests to sacrifice retirement planning efforts to put your kids through school," Matheny said. He recommends comparing federal loans to private student loan options, or cosigning a student’s private loan if it offers a better rate.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Does separation affect financial aid?

Currently, both legal and informal separations impact the financial aid formula. For FAFSA purposes, married parents are considered “separated,” whether legally separated or simply living in different households and having separate lives. Only one parent’s income is reported. Currently, the custodial parent is the one with whom the student mostly lives with—even if the parents are still married. Starting with the 2024-2025 FAFSA, only legal separation will qualify for the FAFSA’s calculations, and the custodial parent will be the one providing the most financial support.

Where can I get help on divorce and financial aid for college?

You can get free help regarding divorce and financial aid for college from financial aid departments from the colleges or universities you are targeting. You can also hire a fee-based financial advisor for guidance on your specific situation.

How does divorce and sole custody affect financial aid?

Currently, the custodial parent for FAFSA purposes is the parent the child lived with most in the previous 12 months. If a parent has sole custody, the parent would likely be considered the custodial parent for financial aid, as the child lives with that parent more than 50% of the time. However, many colleges will still require information from the non-custodial parent for the CSS profile regardless of sole or shared custody.

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  1. Los Angeles County Child Support Services. “Enforcing a Court Order.”

  2. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “2021 Child Support Guidelines Section II: Factors To Be Considered in Setting the Child Support Order.”

  3. Iowa Judicial Branch. “Child Support.”

  4. Oregon Judicial Department. “Support for Adult Children Attending School.”

  5. Studentaid.gov. “How Do I Complete the FAFSA Form if My Parents Are Divorced or Separated?

  6. New York State. “FAFSA: Frequently Asked Questions.”

  7. Congressional Research Service. “The FAFSA Simplification Act.” Page 12.

  8. CollegeBoard.org. “CSS Profile: 2023-24 Participating Institutions and Programs.”

  9. Congressional Research Service. “The FAFSA Simplification Act.”

  10. California Student Aid Commission. “Summary of Changes to the 2024-2025 FAFSA.”

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