A Complete Guide to the FAFSA for Parents

FAFSA can help match your child with thousands of dollars in financial aid for college. Learn why it's important to file and the steps to do it.
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  • The FAFSA can help lower the cost of college.
  • Filling out the FAFSA isn't required, but you could end up with free money for school.
  • A huge part of filing the FAFSA is gathering parent information.
  • Parents need to report much of their finances, assets, and investments.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be a guardian's most valuable tool for lowering the cost of college for their student.

The FAFSA is a form that parents or students can fill out that matches them with financial aid packages. Those include loans, grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and more.

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Ready to Start Your Journey?

All you need to do to file the FAFSA is spend an hour or so inputting your financial information and your dependant's educational information — and you'll receive offers you qualify for in the mail.

This guide will teach you, the guardian of dependent children, how to prepare for the FAFSA and file it.

What Is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is a free application that shows you how much in federal loans and grants you qualify for. The form asks questions about your finances and requests financial documents like bank statements and tax filings.

The FAFSA deadline is June 30 for the next school year. The initial application takes around an hour to complete. You can file a new application every year, so subsequent FAFSAs are typically a lot quicker to file.

Although filing the FAFSA is free, the financial options it matches you with won't always be. You may qualify for grants, which are usually free, but loans need to be repaid.

Why Does Your College Student Need to File the FAFSA?

You aren't required to file the FAFSA. However, it's the best way to get financial aid. If you don't file, you'll never know how much money you could have received. This could lead your dependant to take on more debt than they need to — which can affect their credit score and ability to finance things like cars and homes for years.

That's why it's best to file the FAFSA even if you choose not to opt for any of the financial aid it offers you.

It's helpful for any family to apply for the FAFSA, regardless of their income. Many people believe that if they make too much money, it's pointless to apply. However, not every financial aid package is income-based — so there are still many opportunities for financial aid.

What Parent Information Do You Need to File the FAFSA?

Filing the FAFSA for the first time can take an hour or longer. The process can be much easier if you have what you need in front of you. Most of it is your information as a parent, so here's how you can prepare.

Income Information

Much, but not all, of your child's financial aid opportunities come from your income. You'll need these documents:

  • Federal income tax returns
  • W-2s, 1099s, and other proof of income
  • Proof of income not available on your tax return

Nontaxable income that might not be included on your return include inheritances, alimony, child support, workers' compensation, and more.

Personal Identification

Besides all the tax and income information you need to provide, you need a few pieces of personal information. That includes your Social Security Number (SSN), phone number, and email address. If you're not a U.S. citizen, you must provide your Alien Registration Number.

Asset Information

The FAFSA will ask about many of your current assets and investments. Here are some common assets parents have that you should prepare to report:

  • Your checking accounts
  • Your savings accounts
  • Stocks and bonds (excluding money held in qualified retirement accounts)
  • Real estate investments (excluding your primary residence)
  • Other investments like college savings plans, trust funds, and emergency funds

5 Steps to File the FAFSA as a Parent

Once you have everything you need to file, you're ready to file the FAFSA. Here's what to expect once you start the process.

1. Create Your Parent FAFSA Account

You need to create an FSA ID to log into your FAFSA account. You and your child should have separate FSA IDs — so create yours first.

You'll need your SSN, full name, date of birth, phone number, and email address. SSNs, phone numbers, and email addresses can only be attached to one account, so don't use the same ones for your child as you do for yourself.

Then, go to the link to create your account, including your username, password, and security question answers.

After that, the site will guide you through the rest of the steps. If a student has two parents, both of them can create an FSA ID, but only one is necessary. However, the FAFSA will still ask for both parents' information.

2. Create Your Child's FAFSA Account

Once you create your FSA ID, you can move on to your dependant's.

Visit the same link to create your child's FAFSA account and follow the same steps. Just be sure to use different phone numbers, email addresses, and SSNs for each of you. Follow this step for each of your children if more than one is filing the FAFSA.

3. File Your Child's Educational Information

The FAFSA will ask you for information regarding your child's educational history and what school they plan on attending next.

You'll need to provide a list of the colleges your dependant is considering and any previous colleges or high schools they've attended. You also need to provide their GPA.

The FAFSA asks for this to match them with potential academic and state-based financial aid.

4. File Your Financial Information

After gathering your financial information, like your bank balances, tax forms, and investments, you're ready to report it on the FAFSA.

If you're married or living with another parent, you'll need to gather their financial information as well.

5. Wait for Your Child's Financial Aid Offers

After filing the FAFSA, you should expect financial aid letters in the mail. Financial aid letters detail what financial packages are available for your dependant.

Those letters come from the different colleges you and your child listed as potential schools on your application.

You can compare your different offers to help you understand how choosing different schools will impact your finances. Once you receive your offers, you can accept, decline, or negotiate them.

Frequently Asked Questions About the FAFSA for Parents

Do I need to file the FAFSA for my child?

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You're not required to file the FAFSA for your student. However, you don't lose anything by filing the FAFSA. You can lose out on money by not filing it.

The FAFSA is one of the best ways to match your child with financial aid offers from the schools they're interested in -- and it's completely free.

I'm divorced. Who needs to file the FAFSA: me or my ex?

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The parent who lived with your child for the most time over the past 12 months is the only one who needs to report their information. If your child has spent an equal amount of time with both parents, then only the parent who provided more financial support needs to report their information.

If you're divorced but still living together, you'll need to report information for both of you. And if you or your ex remarried, step-parents also need to be reported.

How much can parents make to qualify for the FAFSA?

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There aren't income limits on filing the FAFSA. Any parent or guardian can complete the form.

If your income is above average, it might disqualify your child from some income-based financial aid. But there are other types of financial aid that don't depend on your income, including school- and merit-based scholarships.

What do parents need to know about the FAFSA?

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They should know that there's no income cap on filing the FAFSA. Many parents feel that they make too much money to qualify for any financial aid packages.

If you don't file it, you could be throwing away free money.

How does a parent fill out the FAFSA?

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First, they need to visit the application website. Gather your financial and personal information, create a unique FSA ID, then plug in that information.

It's a simple process, but it does take a while to file it for the first time -- so preparing before you file is key.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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