Appealing independent student status from FAFSA?
October 23, 2006 8:03 AM   Subscribe

FAFSA help urgently needed. Filing for independent student status.

My girlfriend was essentially abandoned by her father when she was 17. He ditched the family and ran off to Canada and left them to be evicted. She has lived entirely on her own from the age of 18, and has had almost no contact with her father since then. He's since been remarried. Her mother has been dead since she was young. She's currently 23.

When applying for FAFSA aid, the financial aid office told her she HAD to contact her father to get the forms filled out, so she did and he did fill out the forms. Now they're expecting a parental contribution of $5,000 which she has absolutely no hope of ever getting from him.

What can she do to get this decision reversed and file as an independent student?
posted by empath to Education (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You need to talk to your financial aid counselor and they can give you a dependency override, but from my understanding the circumstances must be somewhat overwhelming. I would think the fact you managed to contact him may not do well for you. I have not had good experience with FAFSA, so I am somewhat jaded -- but you can do nothing if you can't convince your counselor of it being a paticularly dire situation.
posted by geoff. at 8:18 AM on October 23, 2006

About the only way you can do it is by convincing the school that her relationship with the father is hostile or neglectful:

Student was sexually or physically abused by the parents or can document a hostile or neglectful relationship with his/her parents. The student will need to provide copies of protection from abuse orders, court documents, social worker reports, doctor reports, police records, and letters from clergy, as appropriate.

The administrator's decision is final. Good luck.
posted by grouse at 8:18 AM on October 23, 2006

Okay the ease or difficulty of this process is going to depend on her Financial Aid Office.

First I just want to clarify that it was actually this office that told you that they expected the 5K contribution. There is a part of your FAFSA report which is titled "Expected Family Contribution" and this to my understanding more of an index number (rather than a dollar amount) in which your Financial Aid Office uses to do their calculations. If it is just FAFSA it is important to preemptively talk to Financial Aid to explain the situation.

Now assuming it is the financial aid office expecting these funds, go into the financial aid office and tell them about the estranged relationship and make sure to emphasize the fact that the only reason his information was included was because you were given an ultimatum. Different schools are going to have different standards for issuing a dependency override as well as different levels of proof. Just gather any and all evidence of the situation and give it a shot. Good examples of proof would be your father's tax returns showing how long it has been since he has claimed you as a dependent and the like. Good Luck.
posted by JakeLL at 8:31 AM on October 23, 2006

Good luck, but it probably won't happen. My college girlfriend's parents booted her out of the house when she turned 18, but that wasn't enough for the school to let her file as an independent because there was no documented history of physical or sexual abuse.
posted by I Am Not a Lobster at 8:37 AM on October 23, 2006

Response by poster: Good question. If he's been claiming her as a dependent, does that mean he can get charged with tax fraud if he doesn't pay his share?

Would that matter if he's in another country?
posted by empath at 8:38 AM on October 23, 2006

The IRS says, "To claim a dependency exemption for a person as your qualifying relative, you generally must provide more than half of that person's total support during the calendar year in which your tax year begins."

You have evidence that he has been claiming her as a dependent in years when he did not provide any support? (That does not mean paying for college.) If so, then that is tax fraud. Seems like it would be a stupid thing for him to do.
posted by grouse at 8:49 AM on October 23, 2006

Response by poster: Honestly, I don't know that he's been paying taxes at all. He lived in Canada illegally for a time, and I don't know for sure that he's there legally now.
posted by empath at 9:02 AM on October 23, 2006

Offhand, I think you can easily be considered independent if you're married, but I don't advise that as a solution. Speak to her school's financial aid office--they may be willing to work with her if she explains the circumstances.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:22 AM on October 23, 2006

I don't know why there is speculation above about dependency for income tax purposes. There's no evidence to suggest that the father has been claiming her as a dependent, and it's immaterial for financial aid if he was.

The *best* thing to do in this situation would be to say you don't know how to contact the father, whether that was entirely true or not. Now that you've contacted the father, and he's filled out the forms with all his income and savings information, it looks pretty much like any other student trying to scam the system and get more financial aid than the formula allows.

(Aside: please read the forms closely. It may be that the student is expected to pony up the entire $5K, from a summer job or savings or whatever. EFC means student and parents alike.)

A $5K EFC is rather low. The student may just have to live with the situation as best she can. (Beans and rice are tasty and filling.) Alternately, the easy way to get independent status is to get married.
posted by jellicle at 9:32 AM on October 23, 2006

Response by poster: No, it broke out parental contribution at $5000

Her total expected contribution was closer to $17,000
posted by empath at 9:45 AM on October 23, 2006

Response by poster: (I think, i don't have the forms handy-- it was definitely well north of $10,000)
posted by empath at 9:46 AM on October 23, 2006

I have no idea if this is helpful or not. When I got married, I was in grad school. The financial aid department demanded I have *both* my parents sign a waiver that said I was no longer their dependent. They did not have a good answer when I asked what if they were dead.

There is another alternative which your friend may find completely unacceptable, but I'll toss it out there anyway. If she goes ahead and defers college until she is 26, they can't legally ask much of anything about her parents. Yeah I know what the heck is magic about 26, but I didn't write the rules. This would give her an opportunity to make some money of her own towards college. Keep in mind that an 18 year old is expected to be able to put everything she makes towards college, but an "independant adult" is expected to have bills to pay.
posted by ilsa at 10:12 AM on October 23, 2006

Student was sexually or physically abused by the parents or can document a hostile or neglectful relationship with his/her parents. The student will need to provide copies of protection from abuse orders, court documents, social worker reports, doctor reports, police records, and letters from clergy, as appropriate.

I'd like to point out that an eviction is a court document and would seem to be the appropriate documentation as described above.

It sounds like your friend qualifies for the above exception (lack of material support of a minor is neglect) and it is a matter of documenting it. I would suggest anything that would document that her father abandoned her as a minor. As her father moved to another country without her, there has to be some kind of record for this, something that FAFSA could check.
posted by cotterpin at 10:15 AM on October 23, 2006

If she goes ahead and defers college until she is 26, they can't legally ask much of anything about her parents.

Actually, according to the link I posted it is 24 (and that is by 31 December of the school year). So she should be in the clear the next school year.
posted by grouse at 10:25 AM on October 23, 2006

Best answer: My SO has a job that involves helping a lot of people like this get FAFSA. I emailed the question to her and here's what she said:

She does need to appeal her current FAFSA and speak
with the college about a dependency override. There
are no federal rules about what constitutes the
grounds of a dependency override. Each college
financial aid office determines their own criteria.
It is correct that students only have one chance to
make this appeal; the decision is final.

I have helped students make numerous appeals for this
override and have had none to-date denied.
The first step is to make a friend in the financial
aid office who is familiar with this process. There
is absolutely no use in making any appeal if the
documents do not get into capable hands. (This has
taken an absurd amount of time in the past for me.)
Schools frequently keep this process shrouded in

Once this person has been found and his/her brain has
been picked for how their college's dependency
override process works, then it's time to put together
documents. I err on the side of too many documents.
Possible documents include:
-taxes and w-2s from student
-documentation of any non-taxable income
-letter from the student explaining in as much detail
as possible the situation with birth parents and how
student has been supported since then
-copy of mother's death certificate
-letter from any credible sources (clergy, schools,
employers, etc.) verifying this situation and
explaining how the student financially got by during
this time
-letter from dad? (since he provided taxes, is he
willing to say that he abandonned the student?)
-if there are younger siblings also abandoned letters
from their school administrators confirming the
father's absence could be helpful

Documents should be collected and hand-delivered to
the knowledgeable FA person. Go through the packet
with them and see if they can recommend additional
documents that could be of help.

If you have any questions regarding this you can feel free to email me at my address in my profile and I'll pass the questions on.
posted by OmieWise at 10:33 AM on October 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm entering medical school this year. I am 36 and married for several years. One parent left when I was 12 - the other died a decade ago. There has been no support for decades. Continents have been crossed and re-crossed in the interim.

I *still* get asked by some US schools for parental income and contribution documents. It's bizarre. Each school seems to have slightly different policies - either an age cutoff, or through marriage, or in some cases, no exemptions whatsoever. Some follow the Fed's guidlines, others don't.

Some schools allow "independent" only in cases of emancipation. Each US state has a different definition of "emancipated" in regard to minors. Some states require a legal process, others consider it a de facto status following some defined event. It's worth seeing if the person in question could have been considered to have become definitively emancipated at 17, or at a particular time since.
posted by meehawl at 2:47 PM on October 23, 2006

Response by poster: One would think that living on your own for 3 or 4 years with out receiving a dime from her parents or anyone else would count.
posted by empath at 3:01 PM on October 23, 2006

One would think. But I had a similar situation myself, and it's one of the reasons why it took me 10 years to finish my BA. The basic attitude is that the parents should be contributing and are expected to be contributing except in extremely unusual circumstances.

I think a lot of parents who refuse to contribute don't realize quite how badly that can screw things up for the kids -- financial aid doesn't generally make up for that lost parental input.
posted by litlnemo at 3:47 PM on October 23, 2006

The easier it is to get yourself named independent, the more likely people are to game the system. Which is why this is hard to prove.
posted by grouse at 3:58 PM on October 23, 2006

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