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FAFSA: Do I File As Dependent or Independent? – 2023–2024 School Year

The guidelines in this article have been updated to reflect the 2023–2024 academic year. Jump straight to the answer – I’ve also answered some frequently asked questions near the bottom of the article.

If you’re looking for more ways to fund your education and save money, check out my article on 39 ways to cut the cost of college. And for more help applying for financial aid, read this guide (which includes advice on filling out the FAFSA).

I felt totally awesome last month when I was able to tell my friends that I had already done both my federal and state tax returns. It was the first year I had decided to try out TurboTax (last year I used Iowa State U’s fantastic VITA program), which I found to be a great way to avoid the effort required to walk to the library and pick up paper forms.

It also marked another first; I discovered I was no longer a dependent. Indeed, I no longer fell under the criteria set by the government in order for my parents to claim me as a dependent and get that coveted exemption. Just for reference, here are those criteria:

  • You must have one of the following relationships to your parents: child (biological, step, adopted, or foster), brother or sister, or a descendant of one of these.
  • You must be under 24 and be a full-time student for at least five months of the year, or under 19 and not in school. If you’re totally and permanently disabled, this age restriction doesn’t apply.
  • You must have not provided more than half of your own support for the year.
  • You must have lived with the parent wanting to claim you for more than half the year.

For the first time, I did not meet the last two criteria on that list. Maybe you are now at that point as well. If you had an on-campus job last year, you’re bound to make another stunning realization – it’s awesome to be an independent! Specifically, it’s awesome because you get a lot more back on your tax return.

In my case, the difference was several hundred dollars (I work a lot – here’s a sample of my work history). That gave me plenty of money to buy more study music. If you worked even close to as much as I did, you’ll probably be beaming when you do your taxes as well. So, naturally, you come to the next conclusion:

Being independent will net me a lot more financial aid as well.

You can claim yourself as an independent on your FAFSA too, right? Sadly, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide’s Prosser would say, “Well, no, not as such…”

Turns out claiming yourself as independent when applying for federal aid is much, much harder. I found this out today as I was going through the pleasant process of filling the application out; through some digging, I found out that the government has experienced a bit of “advantage-taking” when it comes to this distinction on the FAFSA.

Therefore, to be considered an independent on the FAFSA, you need to meet at least one of these criteria:

  • Be born before January 1, 2000.
  • Be married as of the day you apply.
  • Be enrolled in a master’s or doctorate program at the beginning of the 2023–2024 school year.
  • Be an active-duty member or veteran of the U.S. military.
  • Have children who get more than half their support from you between July 1, 2023 and June 30, 2024.
  • Have other dependents who get half their support from you and live with you at the time you apply through June 30, 2024.
  • Have both of your parents deceased, be in foster care, or be a ward of the court (at any time since you turned 13).
  • You are or were an emancipated minor or in legal guardianship as determined by the court of your state of legal residence.
  • You have been deemed homeless or at risk of homelessness by a high school homelessness liaison or a director of a homeless shelter or transitional program at any time on or after July 1, 2022.

You can find all of these requirements at the official government student aid site as well. If you’re unsure about your status, click the link and read over the official guidelines, as they’re a bit more detailed. If you still have questions, contact your school’s financial aid adviser and set up a meeting to discuss your status.

Most of you who are considered independent on your taxes won’t meet any of these; therefore, you’re considered a dependent when it comes to applying for federal aid.

What if I meet one of these criteria, but my parents claimed me as a dependent on their taxes?

As far as I can tell, the criteria for dependency on taxes and the FAFSA are completely independent of each other. I’ve read through all the PDF documents – including this one, which is pretty clear. So even if your parents claim you on their taxes, you should still go by the above criteria when trying to figure out if you’re independent.

What if I don’t meet any of these criteria, but I have no contact with my parents?

Here’s what the official student aid site says:

“If you have no contact with your parents and don’t know where they live, you should discuss your situation with the financial aid office at the college or career school you plan to attend. The financial aid administrator will help you figure out what to do next.”

Note: I’m not a financial aid counselor or an expert. If you’re still unsure, I highly recommend asking a person with those credentials.

Hope this clears up any confusion you have about your status when applying for loans this year. Does this mean you’ll have to continue selling your blood? Probably. Just take solace in the fact that the rest of us are doing it as well.

Image Credits: hand writing on paper