The Complete Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA® as a Parent
Each year, billions of dollars in federal financial aid are left unclaimed by American families who don’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). In 2022, 23% of families skipped the FAFSA® simply because they didn’t have enough information to complete it.
The FAFSA® can feel overwhelming — but the changes made by the federal government have made the process even easier.
Don’t miss out on valuable financial aid dollars just because you’re not sure where to start. Regardless of your income level, completing the FAFSA® is one of the best things you can do to help your child with the college application process. Here’s how to do it as a parent.
Gather the necessary documents
Expedite the FAFSA® process by preparing in advance. Track down the paperwork you’ll need so you can access it when the FAFSA® opens each year. Usually that happens on October 1, but in 2023, the new simplified FAFSA® only just launched on December 30. After this year, the FAFSA® should be back to its usual schedule. Remember: The earlier you complete the FAFSA®, the better chance you’ll have to get more aid because some funds are given on a fist-come, first-served basis.
If your child is a dependent who does not file taxes, you’ll need the following documents:
- Federal income tax returns
- Any other proof of income (W-2s, 1099s, etc.)
- Non-taxable income not captured on your tax return (child support, workers’ compensation payments, etc.)
- Social security number (SSN) or alien registration number (A-Number) if you’re not a U.S. citizen
- Email address and phone number
- Checkings and savings account balances
- Brokerage account balances for stocks and bonds (excluding any investments held in retirement accounts)
- Real estate investment balances (excluding your primary home)
- Any other investment account balances (like a 529 plan held in your or your child’s name)
Create an FSA ID
The first step to completing the FAFSA® is setting up a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. You’ll use this to fill out and submit the application, access your Student Aid Report (SAR), and find other financial aid info. If your child is a dependent, you will need two separate FSA IDs. Create an account online and encourage your child to do so, too. You’re not allowed to set up your child’s FSA ID for them, but it’s simple and takes less than two minutes. All you need is your email address, phone number, and your SSN.
Write down your FSA ID information in a safe place. You’ll have to complete the FAFSA® each year that your child needs financial aid, and you’ll need this account login information to do so.
Fill out the FAFSA® form
Access the FAFSA® on the Federal Student Aid home page or use this link. Select “I am a parent filling out a FAFSA® form for a student.” Then input your child’s name, SSN, and date of birth.
Next, select which year’s FAFSA® you’d like to complete. In general, the FAFSA® year is named after the year in which you’d like college aid. So if your child will be starting college in 2024-2025, you’ll want to choose the FAFSA® 2024-2025 year (even if you’re filling it out in December 2023!)
If your child has previously submitted a FAFSA®, you might have the option to complete a FAFSA® renewal. The FAFSA® renewal form auto-populates with information from previous years, which can save you a lot of time. To access a FAFSA® renewal, your child will need to log in to their account and start the renewal process with their FSA ID first. They can then save the form and share access for you to continue the renewal application from your parent account.
To pass the FAFSA® application between accounts, like in the case of a FAFSA® renewal, you’ll need a save key. The save key functions like a temporary password that allows you and your child to access the same version of the FAFSA® application.
For example, you can log in and complete the first few sections, create and share a save key with your child, then they can log in and complete the next few sections. A save key will also allow you to save your work if you aren’t ready to complete the form in one sitting. Your application progress and save key will work for 45 days.
As you work on the FAFSA®, try to avoid simultaneous logins. Completing the form at the same time from two accounts can cause you to lose your work. If you have to work separately from your child, complete what you can, then share the save key to collaborate between accounts.
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Complete several sections of information
Generally, you’ll need to answer questions regarding:
- Student basic information
- Student education information
- Student dependency status
- Student finances
- Household information
- Parent basic information
- Parent finances
Student basic information (demographics)
In this section, you’ll input personal details about your child like their name, birthdate, etc. Because this is a federal form, take care to match your child’s details exactly to how they’re listed on their social security card. For example, if your child’s name is “Jennifer” but they go by “Jenny,” you’ll need to list “Jennifer” as their name in this section. One of the most common FAFSA® errors is using an imprecise legal name – so don’t let this happen to you.
Student education information
In addition to putting in information about their current educational level and school, high school seniors will need to add in a list of their prospective colleges for the FAFSA® year. (For returning college students, they’ll just need to add their one college.)
Either way, you need to add at least one college here to complete the form, and all colleges listed will get a copy of your family’s FAFSA® so that they can consider you for financial aid. Your child does not need to have already submitted a college admissions application to add a school to this list.
Using the online FAFSA®, you can add a maximum of ten schools. If your child ends up taking one or two off of their list and wants to swap in different schools, you can do that later. If they decide to only apply to half of their listed schools, that’s okay too. You won’t be penalized for having ten schools on this list and only applying to five.
In some states, the order in which you list the schools on your child’s FAFSA® could have some impact on their aid. In general, if you put your top-choice, in-state college as the first college you list, you should be fine. However, double-check the rules for your home state before you proceed.
Student dependency status
This section determines whether or not your child is a dependent or independent. In general, students are independent if they are age 24+, separated from parents (e.g., legally emancipated, orphaned, under foster care), or attending graduate school. You can take a peek at the dependency status questions for the past year’s 2023-2024 FAFSA® form.
If your child qualifies as an independent, they won’t need to give detailed parental information nor any parent finance information. Otherwise, if they are dependent, you will need to enter detailed financial information about you (the parent/s).
Household & parent basic info
This includes information like the number of people in your (the parent’s) household, as well as information about your marital status.
For divorced and remarried parents, this section can be more complex. You’ll need to figure out which parent(s) are the FAFSA® custodial parents, meaning their financial information is the one that needs to be reported on the FAFSA®. In past years, that was determined by time (ie which parent/s the student spent more time with), but with the new FAFSA®, it’ll be determined by financial contribution (which parent/s contribute more financially to the student’s expenses).
With specific definitions like this, make sure to take your time and read the fine print before you submit anything!
This is when you’ll need the financial documents you tracked down earlier. If you’ve filed taxes in the U.S. over the past few years, you should be able to access the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which will make this simple. To use the DRT, you’ll need to have already filed taxes for the prior-prior year and then answer the three dropdown questions accordingly. Then you’ll be prompted to “proceed to the IRS,” where you’ll effectively import your tax returns to the FAFSA®. Note that we’ve heard reports of the DRT often bombing out, so if it doesn’t work for you, you can also fill out your financial information manually by following the instructions.
In addition to information found on your taxes, you’ll also need to report information about the monetary value of non-taxable benefits, as well as the net worth of your personal and business investment assets. This includes things like savings and checking accounts, investment accounts, investment (or secondary) real estate, etc. Note that it does not include retirement accounts or the value of your primary home. Again, you’ll need to be careful to report exactly the assets the FAFSA® asks for but nothing else, so read carefully!
Sign and submit
Now, all that’s left to do is sign and submit. Both you and your child will need to sign the form from your respective FSA IDs. Once you click “submit,” expect it to take the Department of Education between three and five days to process the form. After that time, you should be able to view your Student Aid Report (SAR) and double-check it for any errors.
FAFSA® Parent FAQs
Am I required to file my child’s FAFSA®?
Yes, or your child needs to. That’s because, for all dependent students under the age of 24, parental information is required. If dependent students file the FAFSA® without their parent’s financial information and signature, the application will be rejected or flagged for verification. There are special circumstances where a student can get a dependency override. Even if you do not plan to help your child financially with their education, your financial information is still required by FAFSA®.
Do I have to complete the FAFSA® online?
No. You can complete and submit a paper copy of the FAFSA®. The processing time will be a bit longer (7-10 days) and it might be more of a hassle to collect your paperwork offline. You’ll also only be able to list four colleges on the form (as opposed to ten schools when filing online).
But if you’d prefer to complete the FAFSA® by hand, you can download a printable application or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) at 1 (800) 433-3243 to have a hard copy sent to you. You can also call this number with any other FAFSA® or federal financial aid questions.
Can I use the same FSA ID for multiple children?
Yes, and you should. An FSA ID is meant to be your personal identifier, kind of like a personal signature or your SSN. So as a parent with multiple children, you should use the same FSA ID for yourself, but each of your children will need their own. One common FAFSA® error is mixing up FSA IDs, so take care to keep each of your children’s FSA IDs organized and separate.
I’m divorced. Do both parents need to file a FAFSA®?
No, only one parent is required to file a FAFSA®. But make sure you’re up-to-date on the latest FAFSA® rules. As of this year, the FAFSA® is changing the definition of custodial parent. Moving forward, the custodial parent will be the parent who provides the majority of financial support to the student, not the parent with whom the student lives. So, only the parent who majority supports the student financially will need to complete the FAFSA®. But if divorced parents split the financial burden equally, the FAFSA® will require financial details from the parent with a higher adjusted gross income.
Is filling out the FAFSA® worth it?
Yes. There’s no income cap on the FAFSA®. Even if you think your income is too high for your child to receive financial aid, fill out the FAFSA® anyway because it’ll give you access to things like lower-interest federal loans, and some colleges require you to fill out the FAFSA® to be considered for any aid, even merit-based aid.
There are also a number of strategies to access more financial aid, even if your family’s income is higher than average.
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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.