Independent Student Vs. Dependent Student


Updated September 19, 2023 · 4 Min Read

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Every student faces the same question when completing the FAFSA: am I an independent or dependent student? The answer matters. Independent students may qualify for more grants and other forms of financial aid.

Can you declare yourself independent? If FAFSA considers you dependent, can you appeal dependent status? The answer depends on your circumstances. Students who fall into several categories based on their age, household members, marital status, educational program, and military status automatically qualify as independent students. Those who do not meet these requirements can file an appeal on their FAFSA or with their school.

Filing your own tax return does not automatically mean you qualify as an independent student. Instead, independent students must meet federal student aid requirements to apply for aid independently.

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Qualifying as an Independent Student

Dependent students depend on their parents or guardians for financial support. But who counts as an independent student? And can you declare yourself independent on the FAFSA?

FAFSA dependent status applies to students who rely on financial support from their parents. These applicants must provide their parents' financial information on the FAFSA. This information affects their financial aid awards.

FAFSA independent status includes several categories. Graduate students automatically qualify as independent. Students over age 24, married students, and learners with children also qualify as independent. Other categories of independent students include military service members, veterans, emancipated minors, and self-supporting youths.

Independent students must pay for most of their expenses without financial assistance from their parents or guardians. They also live separately from their parents. Students with special circumstances that make it impossible to provide parental financial information can apply for a dependency override.

What Is a Dependency Override?

A dependency override changes a student's status from dependent to independent. The federal student aid program and school financial aid administrators can override a student's dependency status. Schools cannot override independent students and declare them dependent.

Most students do not qualify for a dependency override. Qualifying students must demonstrate special circumstances, such as parental abuse, homelessness, or estrangement from their parents.

When students submit the FAFSA without parental information and don't meet the general independent student criteria, their FASFA will be flagged for missing parental information. The student can complete a dependency override form by contacting their College's or University's financial aid office. Some schools will automatically send the form via email or will have the form available on their website.

Along with completing the dependency override form, the school's Financial Aid Office will require a detailed statement and supporting documentation to demonstrate the student is independent.

The Benefits of Qualifying as an Independent Student

Independent students may qualify for tax credits, more financial aid in the form of grants, and in-state tuition discounts. State residents often receive a significant tuition discount. However, schools may determine the residency for dependent students based on where their custodial parent lives. This can cost students thousands in tuition.

Similarly, independent students do not submit parental financial information on financial aid applications. Independent students typically qualify for more need-based scholarships and grants. The federal student aid program may offer more loans or access to need-based loans.

Independent students should reach out to a tax professional to inquire about tax benefits such as education credits and deductions. Student's enrollment and the type of aid they receive can impact what education credits and deductions they receive.

Students should make sure they understand how being independent or filing a dependency override will affect them financially by speaking with their financial aid office and/or tax professional.

Student Taxes: Dependent or Independent?

Tax filers receive tax deductions and credits for their dependents. But what does it mean to be a dependent? Dependent students receive more than half of their financial support from their parents or guardians. Students receive multiple tax benefits by filing as an independent student.

The IRS considers wrongfully claiming a dependent a form of identity theft. Students may need to file an amended or paper tax return demonstrating their independent status. The IRS may also open an investigation to determine whether the student qualifies as dependent.

Tax Credits

Tax credits and deductions save tax filers money. While deductions lower taxable income, tax credits deduct money directly from the taxes owed. Students qualify for several tax credits, including the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) and the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC).

Formerly called the Hope Credit, the AOTC lets tax filers claim $2,500 per student. Degree-seekers only qualify during their first four years of college. The LLC provides up to $2,000 for any postsecondary education program.

However, students claimed as a dependent on someone else's taxes cannot receive either credit. Instead, the tax filer who claims them applies for the credit. If you declare yourself independent, you can claim the credit.

Additional Resources: How To Pay for College

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Portrait of Mary Louis (she/her)

Mary Louis (she/her)

Mary Louis is a Brooklyn native who currently resides in Nashville, where she works at a state community college. She has worked in financial aid and recruitment as a registrar and bursar at city, state, for-profit, and Ivy League institutions, as well as at HBCUs. Louis's financial aid experience includes writing policies and procedures; overseeing satisfactory academic progress, state and federal aid, scholarships, private education lending, and federal verification; and assisting families with completing the FAFSA.

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