A student’s status as a dependent student or independent student is based on 13 dependency status questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, a college financial aid administrator can perform a dependency override to change a student’s dependency status from dependent to independent when there are documented unusual circumstances.
Independent students are not required to provide parent information on the FAFSA. This usually will enable the student to qualify for more need-based financial aid.
Dependency overrides are rare. In 2015-2016, 0.6% of independent undergraduate students (0.3% of all undergraduate students) were independent because of a dependency override.
None of the following situations, even in combination, is sufficient to justify a dependency override:
- The parents refuse to complete the FAFSA or to complete verification
- The parents refuse to contribute toward the student’s college costs
- The parents do not claim the student as a dependent on their federal income tax return
- The student demonstrates financial self-sufficiency
However, if the parents refuse to complete the FAFSA and do not provide the student with any financial support, the student may be eligible for unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans without parental information on the FAFSA. This is subject to the college financial aid administrator’s discretion.
Also, if a student is a homeless unaccompanied youth or if they are self-supporting and at risk of homelessness, they can be considered independent. (Homelessness was added as a criterion for independent student status by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, effective July 1, 2009.)
Generally, dependency overrides are limited to situations in which the family relationship has been severed or where it would be harmful for the student to have continued contact with the family. Examples include:
- Abandonment of the student by the parents, generally involving no meaningful contact or financial support for a long period of time, typically at least a year
- Parents’ whereabouts are unknown
- Parents are incarcerated or institutionalized
- Court protection from abuse orders against the parents
Abandonment most often occurs when the student’s parents are divorced and the custodial parent dies. Normally, the non-custodial parent would become responsible for completing the FAFSA, even if the student is living with the stepparent. A stepparent is considered a parent on the FAFSA only while the stepparent is married to the student’s custodial parent. But, if there has been no relationship with the non-custodial parent, sometimes financial aid administrators will use a dependency override to make the student independent. The financial support the student receives from the stepparent will be reported as untaxed income to the student on the FAFSA.
College financial aid administrators can perform a dependency override only when supported by adequate documentation. In most cases, the documentation must come from a third party and not just from the student or the student’s parents. Letters from teachers, doctors, school counselors, social workers, policy and clergy are helpful. Court orders can also be used to support a request for a dependency override.
A dependency override lasts for only one award year. The student must ask the college financial aid administrator for a dependency override each year they file the FAFSA. The college financial aid administrator must confirm that the unusual circumstances continue and that a dependency override is still justified.