This article is from the Financial Aid, Scholarships, and Fellowships FAQ, by Mark Kantrowitz with numerous contributions by others.
Many universities require both natural parents to provide for
their children's education. Only when the custodial parent (the
parent with whom the child lived the most during the past 12
months) remarries does this obligation shift from the
non-custodial parent to the step-parent.
Thus, if your parents are divorced and the custodial parent has
not remarried, the income and assets of both (natural) parents
must be included on the university financial aid form. This rule
holds even if the non-custodial parent refuses to supply the
required information. (The financial aid administrator may make
an exception in cases of documented spousal abuse or
abandonment. In general, however, getting divorced is not an
effective means of increasing eligibility for institutional
If the custodial parent has remarried, the step-parent's income
and assets must be included on any financial aid form, including
the FAFSA. By step-parent, we mean the new spouse of the
custodial parent, not the spouse of the non-custodial parent.
There are no exceptions, even if the step-parent refuses to
provide any money for the step-children's support or to supply
the required financial information. It may seem cruel, but no
information, no aid. If the parent and step-parent do not comply
with the reporting requirements, the student is out of luck. It
is the student's responsibility to get the parents to cooperate.
Likewise, prenuptual agreements are ineffective at sheltering
assets from the calculation of the parent contribution. If a
step-parent is being counted in place of a natural parent, then
all of that parent's assets should be considered subject to the
determination of financial need.
However, any child support and/or alimony received from the
non-custodial parent must be included on the FAFSA.
The federal need analysis system treats step-parents as though
they were natural parents if
+ they are married to the custodial parent (the natural parent
whose information is being reported on the FAFSA), or
+ they have legally adopted the student
The step-parent's income must be reported for the entire base
year, even if the marriage did not occur until the subsequent
year. Likewise, the system does not recognize prenuptual