If you’re heading to college, or have a child heading to college, chances are that you’ve been asked to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The filing season for the 2017-18 school year starts October 1, which is three months earlier than previously. The U.S. Department of Education provides more than $150 billion in grants, work-study funds, and loans to students. To get a piece of that money, you have to complete the FAFSA. Some financial aid is offered on a first come basis so do not overlook the new filing date.
The easiest way to complete a FAFSA is online at fafsa.gov (be sure to head directly to the official site – other sites may charge you money and may not keep your information secure).
The FAFSA asks for personal information like your name and address as well as your Social Security number. If you don’t have a Social Security number and you are entitled to one, you should take steps to get one. If you don’t have a Social Security number because you’re not entitled to one, you cannot complete the FAFSA.
In addition, you’ll be asked to provide financial information that might not show up on a tax return – such as child support and certain veterans benefits.
If you are a dependent student, you will also be asked to provide similar information about your parents, including their Social Security number and federal tax information.
So who is a dependent student? You can view a specific list of questions (here) used to determine whether you’re a dependent for FAFSA.
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you are not considered a dependent for FAFSA purposes and typically need not provide your parents’ financial information on the form. Exceptions do exist. Specifically, health profession students and law school students may be required to provide parent information regardless of dependency status.
If you answered no to any of the above questions, you are considered a dependent student and must provide information about your parents. This is true even if you do not live with your parents. It’s also true even if your parents refuse to help you with the FAFSA and do not pay your expenses.
If your parents don’t wish to help you complete the FAFSA, just say so on the form when it asks whether you can provide information about your parents (say no). You can only make this notation online: the option is not available on the paper or pdf version.
If, however, you have special circumstances, you’ll need to take some extra steps. If, for example, your parents are incarcerated, you don’t know where your parents live, or you’ve left home due to an abusive situation, fill out the FAFSA and indicate that you have special circumstances. You’ll be allowed to finish the FAFSA without entering parent information, but your FAFSA will not be fully processed. It’s your responsibility to get in touch with the financial aid office at your school as soon as possible to find out the next steps.
For each parent, you’ll report their personal information. Fortunately, your parents do not need Social Security numbers for the FAFSA. If your parents do not have Social Security numbers, just enter 000-00-0000 at the spot asking for your parents’ Social Security numbers. You’ll also report your parents’ financial information, including balances of savings and checking accounts and information from tax forms. For the 2016–17 FAFSA, you will need your 2015 tax information (next year, the rules are changing and you’ll need to report income information from the prior TWO tax years). To make it easy, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which automatically transfers tax data from a federal tax return directly to a FAFSA form. You access the IRS Data Retrieval Tool from the online FAFSA form by clicking “Link To IRS” – it will transfer your tax return information into your FAFSA.
Timing matters. Your tax information may not be available using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool depending on tax return processing times. Typically, the tool is available for use within two to three weeks after the return has been accepted by the IRS. To make sure that you don’t miss any deadlines, the Department of Education recommends that you complete and submit your FAFSA as soon as possible on or after January 1 of the year you plan to enroll. You can submit your FAFSA before you file your taxes by estimating your tax information but you must correct the information after you officially file your tax return.