Who completes the FAFSA for my college-bound child — me or my ex?

Dad claims son as dependent on tax return, so does non-custodial mom need to provide info, too?

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The Credible Money Coach helps divorced mom understand who needs to provide information for a federal financial aid application. (Credible)

Dear Credible Money Coach,

My son’s father and I are divorced, and my ex-husband claims him as a dependent on his tax return. Does his father complete the financial aid application since he claims my son, or is information required from both parents? — Julia

Hi Julia! Thank you for your question, and congratulations on having a college-bound child. Preparing to send a child off to the Quad is both exciting and stressful — and the prospect of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can add to a parent’s anxiety.

As someone who’s completed many FAFSAs (I have four kids), I can tell you the form is not as intimidating as it may sound. When you complete the application online, the program walks you through the process with questions about the financial situation of the student and their custodial parent or parents.

To fully answer your question, let’s look at who needs to supply their information.

Whose information is needed for FAFSA?

The FAFSA form assumes a student is completing it, although I’d be willing to wager that in most cases it’s parents who are actually doing it. This is relevant because as you’re completing the application, whenever the form says "you" or "your," it’s referring to the student. So whoever completes the FAFSA for your son will want to provide his information when they see "you" or "your."

Which leads us to answering part of your question as to whose information is needed for the FAFSA:

Your son’s

Whoever fills out his application will need to provide your son’s Social Security number, driver’s license number (if he has one) and any tax information he may have — such as a tax return or W-2.

The parent or parents he lives with

When parents are divorced and no longer all living in the same household with the student, the FAFSA requires the financial information of the parent the student lived with the most in the past 12 months. 

Your ex-husband’s information is probably needed

Since your ex-husband claims your son as a dependent on his federal tax return, it should mean your son lived with him (and not you) for more than half the year and that your ex-husband (not you) provided more than half your son’s support for the year. Those, among other qualifications, are IRS rules for who can be claimed as a dependent child.

If that’s an accurate description of your son’s living situation, then your ex-husband’s financial information is probably needed for the FAFSA. If your son actually lived with both of you equally during the past 12 months, then whichever parent provided the most financial support should supply their financial information on the FAFSA.

And if your ex-husband has remarried and his new spouse lives with him and your son, your son will need to also provide information about his stepparent.

Some FAFSA basics to keep in mind

Completing the FAFSA can feel like a major hassle — not to mention an invasion of your financial privacy since it requests asset information in addition to tax and income information. But it’s simply a must for anyone attending college, no matter your income level and financial situation.

That’s because while some federal aid, like grants and scholarships, is need-based, some — such as certain federal student loans — is not. Basically, the FAFSA is the gatekeeper to all types of financial aid. If there’s any chance your son will need student loans to fund his education, I suggest that he exhaust his federal student loan options before turning to private student loans. Federal student loans are generally easy to qualify for, come with relatively low interest rates, have flexible repayment options and — depending on the career your son pursues after graduation — he may qualify for federal student loan forgiveness in the future.

The U.S. Department of Education, which oversees FAFSA applications, and the IRS have teamed up to make it easier to provide your tax information for the application. As you’re completing the FAFSA online, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer your tax return information into the FAFSA form. It’s easy, safe and accurate.

And if you’d like some help completing the FAFSA, you’ll find on-page tool tips as you fill out the form, and a FAFSA help page. The financial aid office at the school your son plans to attend can likely also be helpful.

The FAFSA application period opens on Oct. 1 every year. So if your son plans to start attending college in the fall of 2022, he can complete the FAFSA now. I encourage you to get it done ASAP to increase his chances of getting aid.

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About the author: Dan Roccato is a clinical professor of finance at University of San Diego School of Business, Credible Money Coach personal finance expert, a published author, and entrepreneur. He held leadership roles with Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. He’s a noted expert in personal finance, global securities services and corporate stock options. You can find him on LinkedIn.