How to Prove You Are an Independent Student on the FAFSA

Are you a high school student living independently from your parents? The new FAFSA makes it easier for students without parental support to complete the form and get college financial aid.

But it’s important to know the rules and what colleges may need from you to get financial aid without your parents’ help.

First, get an overview of the FAFSA by reading our guide:

Understanding FAFSA & Financial Aid: Your Guide to Paying for College (High School Class of 2024 edition)

Need to know if you are eligible to file your FAFSA as an independent student? Read pages 12-15 in our guide and get more detailed information below.

 

Who Can File the FAFSA as an Independent Student?

As a high school student, there is an expectation on the FAFSA that you are financially dependent on your parents. If you are a dependent student, your parents will need to help you fill out your FAFSA.

But there are a number of ways you may be considered independent from your parents. The FAFSA breaks them down into different types of “circumstances” and will ask you about them at the beginning of your form. See if any of the following “circumstances” apply to you.

 

1. Personal Circumstances

You are automatically considered independent on the FAFSA if:

  • You are 24 years old or older.
  • You are married.
  • You are supporting children of your own.
  • You are on active duty in the armed services or have been in the armed services.

 

You qualify as a legally independent on the FAFSA if:

  • You were orphaned at the age of 13 or older.
  • You are or were a ward of the court.
  • You are or were in foster care.
  • You are or were an emancipated minor (when you were under the age of 18) or under legal guardianship determined by a court in your state of legal residence.

 

2. Other Circumstances

You qualify as legally independent on the FAFSA if at any time on or after July 1, 2023 you were “unaccompanied” (not in your parents’ care) and are either A) homeless or B) self-supporting and at risk of being homeless. This is a big change from prior years. The new FAFSA law requires that colleges work with you in a supportive way to make it as easy as possible for you to prove your independence. See what proof you will need below.

 

3. Unusual Circumstances

This option is for students who have circumstances preventing them from contacting their parents or for students for whom it would be risky to contact their parents. In the past, this group of students was required to get a “dependency override” from the college they hoped to attend. The new FAFSA makes it easier to file the FAFSA independently in these cases by automatically granting you “provisional independence” on the FAFSA. But you will still need to make your case to the college you hope to attend.

Unusual circumstances may include students who:

  • Have left home due to an abusive or threatening environment.
  • Are incarcerated or have parents who are incarcerated.
  • Have refugee or asylee status and are separated from their parents or have parents who are displaced in another country.
  • Are victims of human trafficking.
  • Are otherwise unable to contact their parents.

 

Which Set of Circumstances Do I Choose on the FAFSA?

A lot of these circumstances overlap. You may be experiencing any number of tough situations with your parents.

If possible, it is best to seek independence from your parents by checking a situation under “personal circumstances” or “other circumstances.” In these cases, your status as an independent student is legally protected and there are clear rules about proving your independence that financial aid officers must follow.

In the case of “unusual circumstances,” financial aid officers may use their own professional judgment to determine if your case is legitimate or not. We hope these officers will be sympathetic and offer you the help that you need, but when possible it is always best to have the law on your side.

 

How to Prove You are an Independent Student on the FAFSA

First, submit your FAFSA answering the questions truthfully. If your responses meet FAFSA’s eligibility criteria you will be granted independent status immediately and allowed to complete the FAFSA without your parents’ help.

Once you have been accepted to a college, watch your email. A college financial aid officer may ask for documentation or proof of your independent status from your high school or an agency that is familiar with your family or housing situation.

What will the colleges ask for? This will depend on your personal circumstances or housing situation. There are a range of documents colleges may ask for. Your college’s financial aid administrators should give you clear instructions. And don’t hesitate to ask questions if the questions are unclear. College administrators are legally obligated to help you out.

That said, it’s important to know that colleges make the final decision about your claim of independence. You will need to work closely with your college financial aid officer to get the help and financial aid you need.

Pro Tip: Don’t wait until a college asks for proof of your circumstances. Start gathering your documentation now so you’re prepared to send it out as soon as you receive the request.

 

Proof for Unaccompanied Students Experiencing Homelessness or at Risk of Becoming Homeless (“Other Circumstances” on the FAFSA)

The new FAFSA recognizes the unique challenges faced by students experiencing homelessness. The FAFSA Simplification Act explicitly states that financial aid officers must do their best to help unaccompanied students (not in the care of their parents) who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

The new law also states that renewal applicants who were determined to be unaccompanied homeless youth in the prior year are eligible to have their status carried forward to the new school year if their circumstances remain unchanged and they are enrolled at the same institution. Schools may ask students if their circumstances have changed, but they’re not supposed to require students to prove their claim all over again.

However, financial aid officers may request additional documentation from you if there is conflicting information that the college needs to resolve to process your financial aid application.

(And many colleges may ask for proof of your circumstances no matter what, even though they are not supposed to under the new law. Here is an important government document to share with colleges that may not be caught up on the law.)

If you’re applying for financial aid for the first time, you may establish your claim of homelessness with a “determination letter” or other proof from an authority vouching for you. This may include:

  • Written verification from a school district homeless liaison, director of an emergency shelter, or director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program. Programs like TRIO and GEAR UP can also help with this.
  • A determination from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or written proof of a financial aid administrator’s professional judgment.

 

SchoolHouse Connection offers lots of financial aid advice and sample forms and letters for students experiencing homelessness. This website is a must-read before completing the FAFSA.

 

Proof for Students Who Need a Dependency Override (“Unusual Circumstances” on the FAFSA)

Federal Student Aid’s fact sheet for students with unusual circumstances lists some proof that financial aid officers may ask for:

  • A documented interview between the student and the financial aid administrator.
  • Submission of a court order or official federal or state documentation that the student’s parents or legal guardian are incarcerated.
  • A documented phone call with or written statement from a state, county, or Tribal welfare agency; an independent living case worker who supports current and former foster youth with the transition to adulthood; or a public or private agency, facility, or program servicing the victims of abuse, neglect, assault, or violence, that confirms the student’s circumstances.
  • A documented phone call or written statement from an attorney, guardian ad litem, or court-appointed special advocate (or similar) that confirms the circumstances and their relationship to the student.
  • A documented phone call or written statement from a representative at an institution of higher education that confirms the circumstances and their relationship to the student.
  • Utility bills, health insurance, or other documents that demonstrate a separation from parents or legal guardians.

 

What if My Request for Independent Status is Denied?

Since these determinations are made by individual schools, there is a chance that your claim may be denied by some schools and accepted by others.

If your claim of independence is denied by one college and not another, contact the financial aid office at the school that denied your claim and politely ask why. Explain your situation and ask if there is additional proof or documentation needed. Also show the officer that other colleges have accepted your claim of independence.

If your claim for independence is not accepted by any school, you and your parents will need to update your FAFSA form. One or both of your parents will need to contribute information to your form. If you don’t do this, you will not be considered for any government financial aid including work study. You’ll only be eligible for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

 

Learn More

If you are seeking independent status as a high school student, it’s important to study up. Check out these articles, webinars, and online resources:

Help from SchoolHouse Connection

Help With the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and Youth Homelessness: This page features just about everything you will need to know about filling out the FAFSA and securing the financial aid you deserve.

Webinar | The 2024-2025 FAFSA: Helping Homeless and Foster Youth (January 2024)

Webinar | New Federal FAFSA Guidance for Homeless Youth Webinar (May 2023)

SchoolHouse Connection: Q & A From Our Inbox: Dozens of questions answered!

Help from Federal Student Aid

Federal Student Aid April Guidance Letter on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Determinations: This document explains the new law in clear, official terms. You may want to share this with adults who are helping you with the FAFSA or college financial aid administrators who may not know your rights under the FAFSA Simplification Act.

FSA Webinar | Special Student Populations and Circumstances for 2024-25 FAFSA Form (June 2023)

Federal Student Aid: Help Understanding Your Dependency Status

 

LATEST UPDATE: January 17, 2024

EDITED BY: Laura Zingmond and Kim Nauer