The law governing the FSA programs is based on the premise that the family is the first source of the student’s support, and the law provides several criteria that decide if the student is considered independent of his/her parents for aid eligibility. 

Note that a student reaching the age of 18 or 21 or living apart from her parents does not affect her dependency status.  If a student is considered a dependent of his parents, their income and assets must be included on the FAFSA.  The CPS will calculate a parent contribution and add it to the student’s contribution to derive an EFC.

In unusual cases an aid administrator can determine that a student who doesn’t meet any of the independence criteria should still be treated as an independent student.

Professional Judgment

IN GENERAL—Nothing in this part shall be interpreted as limiting the authority of the financial aid administrator, on the basis of adequate documentation, to make adjustments on a case-by-case basis to the cost of attendance or the values of the data items required to calculate the expected student or parent contribution (or both) to allow for treatment of an individual eligible applicant with special circumstances. However, this authority shall not be construed to permit aid administrators to deviate from the contributions expected in the absence of special circumstances. Special circumstances may include tuition expenses at an elementary or secondary school, medical, dental, or nursing home expenses not covered by insurance, unusually high child care or dependent care costs, recent unemployment of a family member or an independent student, a student or family member who is a dislocated worker (as defined in section 101 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998), the number of parents enrolled at least half time in a degree, certificate, or other program leading to a recognized educational credential at an institution with a program participation agreement under section 487, a change in housing status that results in an individual being homeless (as defined in section 103 of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act), or other changes in a family’s income, a family’s assets or a student’s status. Special circumstances shall be conditions that differentiate an individual student from a class of students rather than conditions that exist across a class of students. Adequate documentation for such adjustments shall substantiate such special circumstances of individual students. In addition, nothing in this title shall be interpreted as limiting the authority of the student financial aid administrator in such cases (1) to request and use supplementary information about the financial status or personal circumstances of eligible applicants in selecting recipients and determining the amount of awards under this title, or (2) to offer a dependent student financial assistance under section 428H or a Federal Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loan without requiring the parents of such student to file the financial aid form prescribed under section 483 if the student financial aid administrator verifies that the parent or parents of such student have ended financial support of such student and refuse to file such form. No student or parent shall be charged a fee for collecting, processing, or delivering such supplementary information.

Students Without Parental Support

Students whose parents refuse to support them are not eligible for a dependency override, but they may be able to receive unsubsidized Stafford loans only. For a student to be eligible for this provision (the text of which is in the “Professional judgment” margin note on page 114), you must get documentation (1) that his parents refuse to complete his FAFSA and (2) that they do not and will not provide any financial support to him. Include the date support ended. If the parents refuse to sign and date a statement to this effect, you must get documentation from a third party (the student himself is not sufficient), such as a teacher, counselor, cleric, or court.

As noted in the next section, this situation does not justify a dependency override. But as with overrides, resolving the situation is at your discretion. If you decide that a student falls into this category, you must document your decision and ensure that the student submits a FAFSA and passes all the eligibility matches. The result will be a rejected application with no EFC. You can then award the student unsubsidized Stafford loans up to the maximum the student would normally be eligible for depending on his grade level (but not the amount a student can get when his parent is unable to get a PLUS loan).

Dependency Overrides

A financial aid administrator (FAA) may do dependency overrides on a case-by-case basis for students with unusual circumstances. If the FAA determines that an override is appropriate, she must write a statement detailing the determination and must include the statement and supporting documentation in the student’s file. However, none of the conditions listed below, singly or in combination, qualify as unusual circumstances meriting a dependency override:

      1. Parents refuse to contribute to the student’s education.
      2. Parents are unwilling to provide information on the FAFSA or for verification.
      3. Parents do not claim the student as a dependent for income tax purposes.
      4. Student demonstrates total self-sufficiency.
Unusual Circumstances

Unusual Circumstances do include (and may cause any of the above conditions) abandonment by parents, an abusive family environment that threatens the student’s health or safety, or the student being unable to locate his parents. In such cases a dependency override might be warranted.  The presence of these conditions would not disqualify a student from being an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless. Such a student who is too old (i.e., is 22 or 23) to be a “youth” would merit a dependency override.  An FAA may, without gathering documentation, use an override that another school granted in the same award year. However, overrides do not carry over from one year to the next; the FAA must reaffirm each year that the unusual circumstances persist and an override is still justified.

A third party that knows the student’s situation—such as a teacher, counselor, medical authority, member of the clergy, prison administrator, government agency, or court—should establish the unusual circumstances. Evidence can be a signed letter or an official document, such as a court order. If third party documentation is truly not available, the school may—though it is not required to—accept a signed and dated statement from the student or a family member detailing the unusual circumstances. Such a statement should be a last resort.

Unable to Provide Parental Data

FAFSA on the Web allows students to indicate that they believe they have special circumstances that prevent them from providing parent information. A student who indicates this is thoroughly informed about what warrants a dependency override and what the results will be for his application. If he persists through those screens and does not include parent data, he will get a rejected ISIR that will have the special circumstances flag set. You will have to review the student’s situation and determine if he: is an unaccompanied homeless individual, merits a dependency override, must instead provide parent data, or should be permitted to borrow only unsubsidized Stafford loans because he can document that his parents have refused to support him and to provide their information on his FAFSA. In the last case he does not receive a dependency override.