Going through a divorce is tough, being divorced with kids is even tougher and being divorced with kids preparing for college can be brutal. Understanding the basics will help quell some of these anxieties. Keep in mind that all information provided on financial aid applications is kept separate and confidential. At no time do parents do not have to disclose financial information to each other. This will be an enormous relief to many of you!
Who is the custodial parent?
Colleges will always require financial information from the “custodial parent” and sometimes, the non-custodial parent. For the sake of financial aid, the custodial parent is the parent which the student lived with for at least 51% of time for the year prior to applying for financial aid. This means that the parent deemed to have custody in your divorce decree may not be the custodial parent. Similarly, the parent that claims the student on their tax return may not necessarily be the custodial parent. The FAFSA and the CSS Profile will require information from the custodial parent only.
The FAFSA will be required by all colleges when applying for financial aid. Most private colleges and some public colleges, like University of Michigan, will also require the CSS Profile. Of those colleges requiring the CSS Profile, most will also require a form called the Non-custodial Profile (NCP) which will gather financial information from the non-custodial parent. The NCP is the only place where the non-custodial parent information will be required. In other words, the non-custodial parent’s financial information will not be considered when determining financial need if the colleges you are applying to do not require the NCP. This is especially important information for families in which the non-custodial parent is a high earner.
Are step-parents included?
In short, yes. In many cases, the step-father’s financial information will be considered towards financial aid eligibility and the biological father’s information may not be. I know this seems completely unfair and ridiculous. The theory behind this gem of a rule is that the step-parent’s income will make the custodial parent’s income more expendable even though the step-parent may have zero responsibility to pay for your child’s college expenses. The same rule applies to the non-custodial parent’s spouse. So heed this advice…if you are happily engaged, stay engaged! Hold off on the new marriage until after your kids are out of college.
What if the non-custodial parent refuses to participate?
Colleges will not consider the non-custodial parent’s refusal to participate for a waiver. The colleges will consider a history of documented abuse or lack of contact or support. Colleges like Syracuse University or University of Miami, where the non-custodial parent information is required, may offer a non-custodial waiver in order to bypass the NCP. The College Board has a process which requires an initial request through College Board. The College Board will then forward the request along with required documentation to the colleges. The next steps will depend on the colleges. Colleges will not accept that the non-custodial parent is just being difficult as they fully expect both parents to participate in this process. Every divorce is different and some can be impossibly difficult however, it is important to remember that all parties being cooperative will only save money for everyone.