How a Divorce Affects a Student's Financial Aid

Steps to Take When Filing the FAFSA

High school graduate with divorced parents

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A parents’ divorce has many intangible and tangible impacts on the family, especially those that can drag on for several years. There are questions of custody, living arrangements, child support, and alimony, along with in-depth discussions about an equitable separation of property and assets. The uncertainty can put everyone into an emotional tizzy as children’s loyalties are torn between their parents. If one of the children is also applying to college, some even more perplexing questions can come into play. Here are some of the ways a parents’ divorce can affect the student’s college financial aid application process:

Which Parent Completes the FAFSA?

This is often one of the biggest questions in the case of a divorce, although the rules are quite clear. The legal requirement is that the custodial parent is the one who completes the FAFSA. That is usually the parent whom the child lived with the most during the 12 months prior to filing the FAFSA. The custodial parent must report any child support or alimony payments received as income. If the time was equal, it is the parent who provided the most financial support. Some families may try to “game” the system by claiming the student lives with the lower-income parent, or by making alimony and child support payments “under the table” so they don’t show up on tax returns. This can be a dangerous game to play. Some colleges may ask for verification or court documentation to support income and custodial claims, which could lead to a reduction in financial aid for the student.

What If the Parents Still Live Together? 

Sometimes divorced or separated parents choose to live together for financial or other reasons. In this case, both parents’ income will be reported on the FAFSA. However, if they are only legally separated, but not yet divorced, and living together, information on both parents will be reported on the FAFSA.

Do We Have to Report a Step-Parent’s Income?

If the step-parent is married to and living with the custodial parent, that financial information must also be reported on the FAFSA. The step-parent may be able to count other children as part of the household if they are also providing more than half of their financial support.

Living With a Step-Parent After the Biological Parent Has Died

If your biological parent died, but you are still living with that parent’s partner as your step-parent, you will not use their financial information unless that person has legally adopted you. Use the financial information for your remaining biological parent. 

Living With Other Relatives

Some divorces are so bitter that it is better for the children to live with other relatives temporarily; however, this does not change the requirement to use the parents’ financial information unless the relatives have legally adopted the child.

What About a 529 Plan?

It is advisable to have the custodial parent listed as the owner of any 529 college savings plan. Although it will still be listed as an asset, the distributions will not be included in income. If the non-custodial parent maintains ownership, it is not listed as an asset, but distributions count on the FAFSA as untaxed income to the beneficiary, the student, which could negatively impact the amount of financial aid that is granted.

If it does make sense financially to change the custody arrangement, and both parents and the child are comfortable with the new agreement, do it legally and properly through the court system so you will have verifiable documentation to show, if needed. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to process the paperwork so that it is in place before the FAFSA period begins.

In 2016, changes to the FAFSA included moving the start date of the filing period to October 1. Beware of any financial transactions that may yield a capital gain, however, as that may also reduce the financial aid.

Divorce can be a stressful time, so make decisions based on the best interests of your children and try to think strategically when it comes to completing the FAFSA, so your child’s college education opportunity is not negatively impacted. Find out how college savings plans are affected by divorce. 

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Student Aid. "How Do I Complete the FAFSA® Form if My Parents are Divorced or Separated?"

  2. Federal Student Aid. "Dependent Students Must Report Their Parents’ Information, as Well as Their Own, on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) Form."

  3. American Bar Association. "529 Plans: Fun(d) Facts for Family Lawyers!"

  4. Federal Student Aid. "Changes Impacting the 2017–18 FAFSA®."

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