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An Introduction to Financial Aid for Complex Families

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When you’re applying for need-based financial aid, you’ll need to provide information not only about yourself, but about your family. Most colleges assume that your parents will be primarily responsible for paying for your college education, so they take parental resources into account when making financial aid decisions.


Financial aid forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, are simplest to fill out for those who come from what you might consider the stereotypical American nuclear family structure — in other words, students who live with two parents who are married to each other and perhaps a sibling or two. Obviously, however, this isn’t how all families look, and there’s nothing wrong with that.


If you’re applying for financial aid from a more complicated family situation, you may find that the forms you’re given don’t exactly fit your life. Whether through established policies or through special review processes, however, you may still have the opportunity to receive financial aid that’s effectively tailored to your situation.


Read on for more on the information you’ll need to navigate and self-advocate effectively during the financial aid process.


Need-Based Financial Aid and the Application Process

In this post, we’ll be talking about need-based financial aid, or aid that’s awarded based on how much you and your family can afford to pay. When you’re applying for this type of aid, your family situation can make a big difference.


The other major type of financial aid is merit-based aid, which is awarded without considering your financial need, and often comes in the form of scholarships. It might be awarded based on your grades, your membership in a certain organization, an essay competition, or other factors. For the most part, you don’t need to worry about your family situation impacting whether you receive merit-based aid.


In order to apply for need-based financial aid from the college(s) you’ve chosen, if you’re a United States citizen or eligible non-citizen, you’ll first need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This form determines your eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. (You can learn more from our blog post Ultimate Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA.)


What other financial aid forms you’ll need to submit depends upon your location and your college. In addition to your FAFSA, many colleges will ask you to submit the CSS Profile, another financial aid application, which asks more detailed questions about your family’s finances.


Once your application is submitted and processed, you’ll receive a financial aid award letter from each college that breaks down the cost of attending that college into categories, such as tuition, room and board, and personal expenses, before laying out how much and what kind of aid you’re being offered.


Will my family have difficulties filling out financial aid forms?

As we’ve mentioned, the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and other financial aid forms are easier to fill out for applicants whose family situations are relatively simple. Others may find that the process of applying for aid is a little (or a lot) more complex.


Financial aid applications generally group your two parents’ incomes and assets together when evaluating your financial resources. Of course, that information is easier to provide if your parents are married and manage their finances together.


The more your family differs from the stereotypical nuclear family, the more potential there is for extra complications in the financial aid application process. If your parents aren’t married or living together, for example, this will disrupt the college’s usual formula for calculating your financial need.


Some specific situations which could complicate the financial aid application process are the following:


  • Parents who have never been married to each other
  • Parents who were married and are now divorced
  • Parents who have remarried
  • Half-siblings and/or step-siblings
  • Noncustodial parents
  • One or more parents who are absent or out of contact
  • One or more parents who are deceased
  • Legal guardianship
  • Legal emancipation or independent status


(We should note here that if you’ve been adopted, you won’t need to worry about this causing complications for your financial aid application. Your adoptive parents are your parents, and your family will be evaluated just like any other family.)


The financial aid processes of individual colleges may have established practices for students in these situations. A particular college’s financial aid office can tell you if there’s a standard way in which they approach cases like these within that institution. For instance, that school may have a specific form that they require you to fill out. 


Even if there isn’t an established procedure for dealing with your situation at a college to which you’re applying, this doesn’t mean that you’re barred from receiving financial aid. It does, however, mean that you’ll likely have to put in some extra work to make sure that the people making financial aid decisions fully understand your family circumstances.


What to Expect: Financial Aid Concerns for Common Family Variations

Even though having a complicated family means that financial aid forms aren’t tailored to your situation, it doesn’t mean that your situation is uncommon. Families routinely vary from the stereotypical norm, so financial aid offices are used to dealing with complications like these.


Below, we’ll go over some specific concerns that may arise in certain family situations. This overview isn’t exhaustive, but it provides some guidance as to what issues, responses, and workarounds you might encounter.


It’s important that you keep in mind that every college has different financial aid policies. Having special circumstances often means the college can’t provide any specific guarantees in advance about how the process will turn out (Neither can CollegeVine).


Another important factor to consider is that college financial aid offices cannot intervene in disputes that might arise within a family, including questions of how to split college costs or whether a school is affordable enough. It’s up to your family to work out these issues — the college can only provide suggestions and tell you how much aid they’re able to provide.


Parents Who are Not Married to Each Other

Whether your parents were never married or have divorced, having parents who aren’t married or aren’t living together is not uncommon, but it makes it more difficult for the college to get a cohesive picture of your family’s finances.


Since colleges awarding need-based aid often expect both parents to contribute to educational costs, they often require financial information from both parents in order to calculate your overall need for aid. Physical distance, lack of contact, or interpersonal tensions can make this difficult for applicants whose parents are not together.


If your parents don’t live together, you’ll complete the FAFSA based on the financial details of whichever parent you’ve lived with most, or if you’ve spent equal time with both, whichever has provided the majority of your financial support. That parent is considered your “custodial parent” for financial aid purposes. (If your parents are not married but live together, you’ll enter their combined financial information on the FAFSA.)


For the CSS Profile, you’ll also complete the main application based on your custodial parent’s information. Many colleges will also require you to have your other parent — the noncustodial parent — provide their information via the Noncustodial Profile, which asks many of the same questions regarding financial matters. When you fill out the CSS Profile, you can provide your noncustodial parent’s email address so that they can be contacted about this requirement, or of course, you can contact your parent yourself. 


Remarriage and Stepfamilies

For FAFSA purposes, whether to report a stepparent’s income depends on which parent is your custodial parent. This infographic from the Federal Student Aid website may help you to figure things out.


In brief, if your custodial parent has remarried, you’ll be required to provide your custodial parent’s spouse’s information on your FAFSA. Your noncustodial parent’s information is not included on your FAFSA, nor is their spouse’s.


For the CSS Profile and institutional financial aid forms, things may get a bit more complicated. While the standard CSS Profile procedure, according to the College Board, is to take the custodial parent’s spouse’s financial information into account, individual colleges have a great deal of latitude in making their own policies about stepparents, and also in making exceptions as they see fit.


As always, you’ll need to follow any specific instructions your colleges give you regarding the financial aid application process, and contact each school’s financial aid office directly with questions. If you’re asking that a policy be adjusted, you’ll likely need to submit additional information, as we’ll go over below.


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Parents Who are Not Available

Of course, there are situations in which you might not be able to get financial information from your parent. You might have very little or no contact with them, they might be deceased, or you might have a legal guardian as your primary caregiver.


Whatever the situation, if your parents aren’t available, it may be difficult or impossible to provide their financial information or have them assist you with your college costs. Colleges generally expect that you’ll expend some amount of effort in trying to get a hold of the necessary documents, but they recognize that sometimes it’s just not possible.


One particularly tricky situation comes up when a parent is uncooperative. For instance, even if you have contact information for a parent, some aren’t willing to provide financial information. Contacting a parent might even be legally inadvisable or unsafe for you. In these situations, some colleges may be willing to waive certain financial aid requirements, but you’ll need to contact each college directly to find out.


If you’re in a situation where you have a court-appointed legal guardian, you’re generally considered independent for financial aid purposes, meaning that you may not be required to provide your parents’ financial information. However, different colleges have different policies about who is considered independent, so it depends on your school.


Legal Emancipation and Independence

If you’re legally emancipated, you’ll generally be considered as an independent student by the FAFSA and by colleges, meaning (as we noted above) that you won’t need to provide parental information. For more about this topic, take a look at our post What Does It Mean To Be Considered Independent On The FAFSA?


Again, different colleges may have different policies regarding which students they consider to be independent. Even if you’re considered independent by other agencies or on the FAFSA, depending on your circumstances, a college might still ask you to provide your parents’ financial information on the CSS Profile.


If you’ve gone through the difficult process of becoming an emancipated minor, it’s very possible that trying to contact one or both parents might be difficult, fruitless, or not recommended for legal or safety reasons. This is a situation where sending an extra letter of explanation that fully explains the circumstances can be especially helpful.


Occasionally, applicants and parents wonder whether legal emancipation could be undertaken by an applicant specifically so that they can (potentially) qualify for more financial aid as an independent student. In reality, emancipation is such a serious legal process, with so many complex requirements, that this is not generally an option.


Other Complex Family Situations

Obviously, the variety of family situations out there transcends the categories we’ve provided here. With this near-infinite variability, we’re sure to have some readers who don’t see their circumstances reflected in this post.


If this “other” describes you, your best bet is to call the financial aid offices of the colleges you’re interested in, and ask them how they’d like you to handle your financial aid application. You’ll likely need to write a letter and provide additional documentation describing your special circumstances and why they aren’t reflected accurately on the standard forms.


Of course, a major difficulty that comes with being in this situation is that you won’t know what to expect. Keeping lines of communication open with the financial aid office(s) in question throughout the process can help to ensure that the college makes a well-informed decision — and one without any huge surprises.


What to Do if Your Family Situation Makes Applying for Aid More Complicated

Now that we’ve gone over why and how coming from a complex family situation may make your financial aid application process less straightforward, it’s time for action. Here, you’ll find some tips for making sure your financial aid application is correctly considered with regard to your family situation, and for advocating on behalf of your family and yourself.


  • First and foremost, have an honest discussion with your family about the details of your situation. This can be hard, but you need this information in order to plan for college. Getting exceptions to general policies usually requires documentation, and often, you won’t be able to access this documentation on your own.
  • Talk to your guidance counselor for advice. They may have firsthand knowledge of how best to handle your particular situation, or experience dealing with the colleges in question. They can also sometimes provide a supporting statement to back up your explanation of your family’s special circumstances.
  • Talk to your colleges’ financial aid offices. Financial aid officers are the people who can tell you most accurately how a given school accounts for complex family situations in the financial aid application process, and also the people who can help you to seek an exception to a policy or appeal a financial aid award later on.
  • Be forthright about your circumstances. Some family complications can be difficult or painful to describe, and you might also feel embarrassed to be asking for extra help. However, financial aid officers aren’t there to judge. They’re there to help, and they can’t do so without a full picture of the situation. You don’t need to provide every detail, but they can’t use any information you don’t give them.
  • Use all opportunities you’re given on the application to describe your situation accurately. The FAFSA and CSS Profile, along with most other need-based financial aid forms, give you explicit opportunities to describe the special circumstances affecting your financial situation. Use them!
  • Don’t make guesses or assumptions about how to fill out financial aid forms. If a question doesn’t make sense for your family situation, don’t just fill it out anyway, unless a financial aid professional explicitly tells you to do so. Ask for help if you’re unsure.
  • Write an additional letter to the financial aid office to describe your special circumstances. When in doubt, in addition to calling or emailing the office, submitting a letter that lays out your situation in a concise and direct way is often a good idea. This is also the starting point for financial aid appeals.
  • Be prepared to provide supporting documentation to demonstrate your position. This may include additional tax documents, income or asset statements, custodial agreements, official statements from school officials or other people familiar with the situation, and other documents. The college will be able to tell you exactly what they need, but to stay organized and timely, have your paperwork in order well in advance.
  • If necessary, appeal your financial aid award and supply additional information. Requesting to have your award reconsidered doesn’t always work, but simply asking for reconsideration won’t hurt you. For more information about how the appeal process works, check out our post Can I Appeal My Financial Aid Award?


For More Information

Financial aid is a great and necessary thing — without it, many talented and qualified students wouldn’t be able to attend college. Still, applying for financial aid takes a lot of time and effort. Frequently, it’s quite a pain, and doubly so when the forms in common use simply aren’t designed to fit your family’s reality.


Whatever your family looks like, financial aid options exist to help make your college education manageable and possible. Asking for aid options that more accurately reflect your situation won’t hurt, and when financial aid offices are willing to listen, it can help a great deal.


Stay tuned to the CollegeVine blog for more advice about need-based financial aid, merit-based scholarships, and other ways of making college more affordable.


Here are a few to get you started:



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.