Divorced Parents and the Financial Aid Process

Beginning October 1, current and prospective college students began completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) for access to federal student aid — including grants, scholarships, loans and work-study — for the 2022-2023 school year.

Though this is already a difficult task, completing the FAFSA application for students of divorced parents is even more daunting. Sometimes students need to provide financial information for both parents, but typically the FAFSA form focuses on the income for the household where the child has resided for a majority of the preceding 12 months.

As part of a divorce proceeding and based upon the facts and circumstances of each particular case, courts can require a noncustodial parent to contribute to the cost of their child’s education. While some states require divorcing couples to address how they will pay for their children’s college, without an agreement or a court order, parents are not legally obligated to pay for their child’s higher education. Financial aid awards are usually based upon an assumption of parental financial support. If there is no parent contribution, undergraduate students may be classified as independent students and receive financial aid based solely on their own financial resources.

In determining the amount of federal aid given to a student, the FAFSA takes into consideration whether a student’s divorced parents live together or not. Students whose divorced parents don’t live together should provide financial information for the parent with whom they have resided for the majority of the preceding 12 months. Students who equally divide their time between their parent’s households should instead provide financial information for the parent who provided more financial support over the past 12 months. The FAFSA does require students to include financial information about a stepparent who is married to their legal parent. It also requires students to include information about both legal parents if they live together despite being divorced.

A divorce can complicate long-term financial planning. During the divorce process, it’s important to consider how decisions will affect a child’s future financial aid. Settlements should address what contributions each parent will make to higher education for their children. In addition to tuition, agreements should be reached regarding other school-related expenses, such as room and board, meal plans, cell phones, laptops, books and supplies and travel expenses to and from school.

Having a conversation about higher education for children is a must when divorcing. Coming to an agreement about as many financial issues as possible helps to avoid future conflict. Mediation is a private process that provides a safe space to discuss this and all other emotionally charged topics that require resolution when divorcing. The transition to college is already difficult for the parents and child alike. Reaching an agreement in advance of the event helps to make the transition to college easier for the parents, as well as the child.

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