College students have all sorts of different living arrangements. Some students live with their parents or receive financial support from them, but these aren't the only factors that define your dependent or independent status. You'll need to figure out your dependency status before applying for financial aid, because it plays a major role in determining how much funding you qualify for.
Living independently from your parents and receiving no financial assistance from them isn't enough to be considered independent—at least not by federal financial aid standards. There are strict rules that dictate your independent or dependent status, and knowing them could mean a big difference in your financial aid situation.
Independent students can apply for financial aid without including their parents' financial information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They may also be eligible for more financial aid money than dependent students. But how do you know your status?
How To Qualify
Per the U.S. Department of Education (ED), you must meet at least one of these criteria to be considered independent:
- Be at least 24 years old by December 31 of the award year
- Be legally married (this includes legally performed same-sex marriages, regardless of where you live)
- Be an orphan (both parents are deceased), be a ward of the court, or have been in foster care at any time since you turned 13
- Be a graduate or professional studies student
- Be a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States or serving on active duty for purposes other than training
- Have legal dependents other than a spouse
- Be an emancipated minor or in legal guardianship
- Be legally determined to be an unaccompanied homeless youth
What To Do If You're In An Exceptional Situation
Colleges and universities understand that students' family situations can be complicated. If you don't meet any of the above criteria, you may still be able to be considered independent if you have an unusual situation that impacts your parents' ability to complete the FAFSA. You'll need to contact your school's financial aid office about a process called a "dependency override," which allows students to appeal their dependency status.
The dependency override was created for students with special circumstances, like being abandoned by their parents in early childhood, being unsafe to approach their parents, or having parents who are incarcerated. The circumstances must be significant for a dependency override to be granted, so you'll have to provide extensive documentation. Your financial aid office will be able to tell you which forms to provide. Just remember that the decision to grant or refuse a dependency override is up to the discretion of the financial aid office.
The federal government takes this matter very seriously, as independent students generally receive more financial aid funding than dependent students. This is because dependent students are assumed to have the financial support of their parents or other family members. Generally, students who live independently from their parents—even if their parents don't provide any financial support—are still considered dependent until they are 24.
How To Request A Dependency Override
If you feel that you may be eligible for a dependency override, be prepared to deliver authentic documentation to prove that you can't provide your parents' financial information on your FAFSA. Photos, faxes, or copies of documents will most likely not be accepted. For example, if your birth certificate is currently in another state or country, you'll have to make arrangements to get it in your possession.
If you have any questions, contact your financial aid office for information about the dependency override process.