You may be advising a student who lives with their grandmother or aunt, but was never legally adopted. In other instances, an older brother, sister, or family friend is raising a child but no official adoption took place.
For some families, this approach may have offered a way to handle conflicts and crises without involving the court system. However, complications can arise when it comes time to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The FAFSA has 13 questions designed to determine whether an applicant may file the form as an independent student. (See questions 46-58 on page 5.) Answering “yes” to any one of those 13 questions is all that is needed for the student to complete the rest of the application without including parent income.
However, there are instances when — despite complex financial or family circumstances — a student’s situation does not allow them to answer “yes” to any of the questions. In those cases, they’ll need to consider another option to explain their financial status to colleges. Most institutions allow applicants to provide additional information using a dependency appeal form.
Students with the following circumstances may want to consider a dependency appeal:
• Abandonment by parents
• Parents lacking the physical or mental capacity to raise the child
• Parents whereabouts unknown or cannot be located
• Parents hospitalized for an extended period of time
• An abusive family environment (e.g., physical/mental abuse or other forms of domestic violence)
• Incarceration or institutionalization of both parents
• An unsuitable household (e.g., child removed and placed in the care of others)
When helping a student complete a dependency appeal form, address these nine factors to ensure the appeal is given proper consideration. Remember, a less than full explanation can delay an answer regarding the student’s appeal.
1: Voluntary or Forced Family Disconnect
With whom does the child live and why? Was the child forced out of a traditional family setting or did they leave voluntarily? Voluntarily leaving without cause does not make a student independent for financial aid purposes.
2: Normal Disagreements Versus Parental Abuse or Neglect
Is the child involved in a standard teen/parent disagreement? Or is the parent misusing their authority, and abusing or neglecting the child? It’s important to outline the specifics of the dynamic involved.
3: Father’s Location and Student Interaction
Does the child know where the father is living? How involved (or uninvolved) is the parent in raising the child and why? The appeal should outline this regardless of whether only one parent or no parent is in the picture.
4: Mother’s Location and Student Interaction
Does the child know where the mother is living? How involved (or uninvolved) is the parent in raising the child and why? The appeal should outline this regardless of whether only one parent or no parent is in the picture.
5: One-Time Disagreement or Abuse
Were words exchanged one time that hurt someone’s feelings, or has abuse or neglect occurred? Did a discussion take place about a parent’s opinion of a boyfriend or girlfriend, or is the parent abusing the child?
6: Documentation of Abuse or Neglect
What type of documentation is available to support the student’s claims? A letter of support outlining the situation from a high school counselor, social worker, community-based organization, or religious official is helpful.
7: Student’s Financial Support
How has the student been supported over the last year regarding food, clothing, insurance, housing, etc.? How will the student be financially supported during the next academic year? Where will they live during breaks from college?
8: Student’s Income
Did the student work part-time last year? If yes, attach the tax transcript or W-2 if no taxes were required to be filed. Some colleges may ask for additional financial information.
9: Letters of Support
In addition to the dependency appeal form, a letter from the student and one or two additional letters from counselors, ministers, or other professionals are usually required. The support letters should clearly outline the areas covered in the eight categories above.
Kenneth McGhee is an instructor and community outreach academic advisor at Northern Virginia Community College — a NACAC member institution. He has worked in the financial aid profession since 1995.