If you have a child applying to college or currently in college then you have probably assisted them in applying for financial aid. There are two major financial aid forms: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS Profile. The FAFSA requires financial information only from the custodial parent, which for purposes of the FAFSA application is defined as the parent that the child lives with more than 50% of the time. This applies to students whose parents are divorced or have been separated for at least six months prior to filing the FAFSA application. However, if the custodial parent remarries, the stepparent’s financial information must be included for financial aid purposes. Additionally, any child support that a parent receives is considered income for both the FAFSA and CSS Profile.
Divorced or separated parents should note that most but not all colleges that require the CSS Profile expect the noncustodial parent to complete a noncustodial Profile form. Both the custodial and noncustodial parents’ income is considered. However, the total family contribution from both parents is usually slightly less than if the parents were still married, because colleges take into consideration the added cost of maintaining two households. If both parents income is considered by the college then a stepparent’s income is not usually included; however if the college only requires the custodial parent to report income and that parent is remarried, the stepparent’s income will also be considered.
If a 529 college savings plan is owned by the non-custodial parent, you may want to consider changing the account owner to be the custodial parent. A 529 plan that is owned by the custodial parent is reported as a parent asset on the FAFSA (worst case impact, a reduction in aid equal to 5.64 percent of the account’s value) but distributions are ignored. If the 529 plan is owned by the non-custodial parent, it is ignored as an asset, but distributions count as untaxed income to the beneficiary on the FAFSA (reducing aid eligibility by as much as 50 percent of the distribution). Having a 529 plan owned by the custodial parent will reduce the impact on eligibility for need-based aid.
Generally speaking, a child of divorced parents will qualify for more financial aid if the custodial parent is the parent who earns the lesser income. This may be a factor that parents want to consider when determing custody of their older almost college bound children. However, if parents live in different school districts and the children attend public school it may be suspect for the custodial parent to live in one school district and the minor child attends school in the non-custodial parent’s school district. Also, know that you may be asked to provide a court order demonstrating custody and/or a custody agreement so you need to make sure you take care of obtaining agreements and court orders before applying for financial aid. Attorney Geraldine Welikson Hess and Hess Family Law can assist clients with any initial or modification of custody needs.
While January has traditionally been the month when FAFSA applications can begin to be filed, starting with the 2017-2018 school year the FAFSA application can be completed as early as October 1st of the previous year. Click here for more information regarding changes to the FAFSA during 2016. If you have questions about the FAFSA or CSS Profile you should contact a financial aid expert or FAFSA directly.
Sources: Paul Bishop February 12, 2016 Want More Financial Aid? Get a Divorce
Emma Johnson September 9, 2015 College Financial Aid Advice for Divorced Families