If you are not sure what you’re doing, applying for financial aid can feel confusing. Fortunately, the process is not as complicated as it may seem, and this guide can help you figure out information you will need for one of the most important parts of your financial aid application – the FAFSA.

The Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) is a summary of your (and possibly your family’s, as explained later) assets, income, and expenses that the federal government, colleges, and scholarship programs use to determine if you are eligible for financial aid and how much you should receive. For an overview of the FAFSA and other financial aid options, check out our CollegeVine guide, “FAFSA, CSS Profile, IDOC, Oh My: A Guide to Financial Aid.” To figure out what your dependency status is (and what it means) keep reading.

Independent or Dependent?

When you are filling out the FAFSA, you must determine your dependency status – in the most basic terms, whether you are considered an independent or a dependent. This matters in regard to whether or not you have to report your parent(s)’s information on the FAFSA. If you are a dependent, you have ties to your parent(s), and you report your information and theirs on the form. If you are an independent, you do not have to report your parent(s)’s information. You must meet certain legal requirements to be considered an independent; it doesn’t simply mean that you live on your own. You must know your dependency status and report it accurately on your FAFSA so that you are awarded the right amount of money based on your situation.

Legal Criteria to Be an Independent

In order to be considered independent on the FAFSA, you must meet at least one of the following criteria:

You are an emancipated minor. If you are a legally emancipated minor, you are completely self-sufficient and have no contact and/or receive no support from your parents. Though the situation is slightly different, you are also considered independent if you have a legal guardian as determined by a court.

You are 24 years of age or older (or will be by December 31st). If you will be 24 years or older by December 31st of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid, you are not required to report parental information on the FAFSA, because at this point you are considered financially independent.

You have a dependent of your own. If you have children who receive more than half of their support for you, or a dependent (not including a spouse) who lives with you and receives more than half of their support from you, you are considered independent.

You are married. If you are married (or separated, but not divorced), you are considered an independent on the FAFSA.

You are a graduate student. If you are attending graduate school (working toward your MA, MFA, MD, Ph.D., or any other graduate degree), you are an independent.

You are on active duty in the military or a veteran. If you are on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training, or you are a U.S. veteran, you are considered an independent.

You are in foster care, an orphan, and/or a ward of the state. If at any time since you turned 13 years old both of your parents were deceased, you were in foster care, or you were a dependent of the court, you are an independent. Additionally, if you are an emancipated minor or have a legal guardian, you are also considered independent.

You are homeless. If you are an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of becoming homeless, you are an independent.

Frequently Ask Questions

If I don’t live with my parents, and I pay for my own school, am I considered an independent?

No. Even if you live alone and pay for your school and all other expenses, you are still considered a dependent, unless you have taken legal action to become emancipated from your parents in the eyes of the law, come from an abusive household, or are an orphan, ward of the state, or in foster care.

If my parents are not contributing to the cost of my education, am I considered independent?

No. As stated above, even if you are paying for your education, you are still considered a dependent unless there has been other legal action to set you apart from your parents as an independent.

What if I cannot contact my parents for their information? Or what if my parents refuse to provide the information necessary for the FAFSA?

There are several situations in which the FAFSA [will accept][https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/parent-info#special-circumstances] your form without your parents’ information, even if you are considered a dependent. They are as follows:

  • Your parents are incarcerated.
  • You have left home due to an abusive environment.
  • You do not know where your parents are, cannot contact them, and have not been adopted.
  • You are older than 21 but younger than 24, are unaccompanied, and are either homeless or self-supporting and at risk of becoming homeless.

In these situations, your FAFSA will be accepted but considered incomplete. Submit it and then immediately contact the financial aid office at the colleges at which you are applying for financial aid. They will tell you what your next steps should be.

Conclusion

If you follow these guidelines, it should become clear what your dependency status on the FAFSA is: independent or dependent. You will need that information to determine whether or not you should report your parents’ tax and income information on your form, which will inform the size of your aid award. In order to get the proper amount, the organizations using this form (the government, universities, and some scholarship programs) will need all of the correct information, including your dependency status.

Remember that all situations are different and if you are still unsure about your dependency status, you should ask your school counselor or check the FAFSA website.

Finally, be sure to check out our other helpful guides to financial aid in college admissions. You may want to start with our general overview, “FAFSA, CSS Profile, IDOC, Oh My: A Guide to Financial Aid” and then move on to more specific guides, such as “What You Need to Know for a Successful Scholarship Season,” “How to Evaluate, Compare, and Leverage Financial Aid,” and “You Were Accepted to Your Dream College But Can’t Afford It…Now What?” Good luck!

Julia Mearsheimer

Julia Mearsheimer

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.
Julia Mearsheimer