Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required for determining federal university financial aid eligibility. Your dependency status—whether you're a dependent of your parents or legal guardians, or an independent student—determines, in part, what information you include on the form and what aid you're eligible to receive.
If you plan to complete the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year, here are some helpful things to know about applying for aid as an independent student.
What Does It Mean to be an Independent Student on the FAFSA?
Dependency status is determined by the U.S. Department of Education. You may be considered an independent student if you meet any of the following guidelines:
- You're 24 or older by Jan. 1 of the school year in which you're applying for aid
- You're married or separated, but not divorced
- You're working toward a master's or doctorate degree
- You have children who receive more than half of their support from you
- You have dependents other than children or a spouse who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you
- You're an active duty military member or a U.S. veteran
- You were an orphan or ward of the court after age 13
- You're an emancipated minor, a homeless youth, or a youth at risk of becoming homeless who is self-supporting
Answering yes to any of these questions means you may be considered an independent student. But if you answer no to all of them, then you're most likely a dependent student for the purposes of completing the FAFSA.
Why Dependency Status Matters When Completing the FAFSA
It's important to understand whether you're a dependent or independent student because your dependency status determines what information you need to include on your FAFSA.
Dependent students need to include information about their parents’ or legal guardians’ income and finances. This is used to calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Schools use this number as a gauge for deciding how much financial aid you should be awarded.
As an independent student, it's generally assumed that you're responsible for your own financial support. So your parents' or legal guardians’ financial details aren't taken into account. The upside of that status is that you may qualify for more financial aid without that extra financial support.
If you're a married independent student, you have to include your spouse's financial information on your FAFSA, even if you’re separated.
How to Apply for the FAFSA as an Independent Student
If you've reviewed the Department of Education guidelines for independent student status and you think you qualify, the next step is completing the FAFSA. That means providing personal and financial information, such as your:
- Date of birth
- Social Security number
- Checking and savings account balances
- Details about the school you plan to attend
If you're a law or health professions student, you may be required to provide your parents' or legal guardians’ financial information regardless of your dependency status to determine eligibility for programs such as Health Professions Loans.
Once you submit your FAFSA, your school's financial aid office will review it. If you're eligible for unsubsidized federal loans only, then no further verification will be required. But if you also qualify for subsidized federal loans, you may need to offer additional proof of your independent student status, such as:
- Income tax returns
- Military service records
- Marriage certificate
- Court documentation explaining your status as a ward or orphan
- Contact information for a social worker, if you're in foster care, or for a housing assistance caseworker, if you're homeless
After your school verifies your status, it can forward your information to the Department of Education. From there, the processing of your FAFSA can be finalized.
Failing to verify independent status with your school could cause you to be ineligible for aid.
Claiming FAFSA Independent Student Status Using a Waiver
In some cases, you can still complete the FAFSA as an independent student, even if you don't meet the Department of Education's guidelines. To do so, you'll need to ask for a dependency override.
The Department of Education allows you to fill out the FAFSA without providing parent or legal guardian information if:
- Your parents are incarcerated
- You left home because of an abusive family environment
- You don't know where your parents are and are unable to contact them
- You're older than 21, but younger than 24, homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless and self-supporting
When completing the FAFSA, you'll have an opportunity to mention special circumstances that keep you from providing information about your parents or legal guardians, even if you're considered a dependent student. You won't get an EFC calculation after submitting the FAFSA and you won't qualify for subsidized loans or grants.
An override isn't usually an option if your parents or legal guardians simply refuse to offer their financial information so you can complete the FAFSA. In that case, you'd also want to apply for scholarships to help fill any financial aid gaps.
Plan Ahead if You're Claiming Independent Status
Some schools award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis. If you're applying as an independent student, verifying your dependency status can add time to your application processing. For that reason, it's important to complete your FAFSA well ahead of the annual filing deadline. For the 2020-21 academic year, FAFSAs were accepted starting Oct. 1, 2019, and must be received by June 30, 2021. For the 2021-22 academic year, FAFSAs were accepted starting Oct. 1, 2020, and must be received by June 30, 2022.
Also, keep in mind that if you've already completed the FAFSA as a dependent student but are now independent, you can ask your school for a dependency review. This may help you qualify for additional aid.
- The FAFSA is required for determining federal financial aid eligibility.
- Whether you're a dependent or independent student can determine the amount of aid you qualify for.
- Independent students may be required to provide additional documentation to verify their dependency status.
- It may be possible to qualify for aid without providing parent or legal guardian financial information, even if you're a dependent student.
- Applying for the FAFSA as early as possible could help if your school offers aid on a first-come, first-served basis.