Mother and teenage sons looking at paperworkWe receive a lot of questions about applying for financial aid when parents are divorced or separated.  The process is a bit more complicated (isn’t everything?) but you just have to know what to do. Once you’re clear on the steps to take, your family scenario shouldn’t cause any delays or problems in applying for or receiving your financial aid.

Who completes the FAFSA?

For families with divorced or separated parents, the FAFSA should be completed by the student and the “custodial parent,” as well as the custodial parent’s current spouse, if there is one. For FAFSA purposes, the custodial parent is the parent the student lived with more in the last 12 months. In a joint custody situation where the student lives equally with the two parents, the custodial parent is the parent who provided the student with more financial support. If all of this is equal, the family just needs to pick one parent as the custodial.

Who completes the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile will ask for the names of all parents of the student (you can list up to four) to include biological, adoptive, and step-parents. Similar to the FAFSA, the parent with whom the student has lived more in the past 12 months, and that parent’s current spouse, if there is one, will complete the Profile with the student. This other parent (and current spouse, if there is one), who many refer to as the “non-custodial parent,” will need to complete and submit a separate CSS Profile. When filling out the main Profile, the student will have the opportunity to provide the e-mail address of the non-custodial parent. That parent will then receive an email with the request to complete the Profile, and a link to the application. Colleges will see the Profiles of both the custodial and non-custodial parents, but the parents will not have the ability to view each other’s information. Additionally, once the student completes the CSS Profile, each time he or she logs back in, the dashboard will show the status of the custodial and non-custodial parent Profiles. On the dashboard, the student can repeatedly request the non-custodial parent to complete the application by checking a box that says, Send reminder email.

What if there is no contact with the non-custodial parent?

Colleges that require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA understand there are cases when a second parent is not involved in the student’s life. For students in this situation, colleges have a waiver process.  Students should go to the college website or call the college and ask about a non-custodial parent waiver form or process. Students will need to do this for every school that requires the non-custodial parent to submit a Profile. Colleges are understanding of cases when the other parent is truly not a part of the student’s life at all, but will not waive the requirement for a case when the other parent simply does not want to complete the application or contribute toward college costs.

Here are some additional tips:

  • It is helpful for all parents to educate themselves on the financial aid process. Attend a MEFA seminar or listen to a MEFA webinar (you can find recorded webinars on the right-hand sidebar of our events page).
  • Sometimes parents aren’t always on the same page about college, so the more discussion that can happen up front between the parents, the smoother the process will go.
  • Parents must comply with the financial aid application requirements despite prior divorce agreements or who claims a student when filing taxes. This information is not relevant to the financial aid process. Once financial aid has been awarded, parents can discuss how the college bills will be paid according to prior agreements. For more information about paying the college bill, watch for MEFA seminars and webinars on this topic in early 2018.
  • Communicate with your child. Be supportive and let your child know that, as a family, you will work together through the financial aid process and help your child make a good college choice.