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Divorced and Separated: It's not apparent who is a parent…

By Daniel Barkowitz
Director of Student Financial Aid and Student Employment at MIT

So, in good faith, you’ve started the financial aid application process, you’ve gathered paperwork, gotten your pencils sharpened (or more probably, your fingers ready for some furious typing) and you come upon the first challenge to your logic. Who is your parent? Now of course, by “you” I am referring to you, the student. You may think it is fairly easy and straightforward to define who your parents are. Boy, would you be wrong.

In all cases, the main financial aid applications (namely the FAFSA and CSS Financial Aid Profile) should be completed by the custodial family. If your birth parents are married to each other, this is pretty easy: “Mother” is mom and “Father” is dad.

If your birth parents are divorced, separated, or were never married, then you only fill out information about the parent with whom you live (and, here is a tricky part, his or her new spouse, your “stepparent”). When it asks for mom’s information, you will leave it blank if you live only with your dad, and conversely if it asks for dad’s information, you should leave it blank if you only live with your mom. If your parent is remarried, you should put the stepparent’s information under the appropriate heading (“father” for stepfather, “mother” for stepmother).

Confused yet? No? Well, read on, McDuff…

Well, what if your parents are divorced and you lived with both of them equally during the last twelve months (in other words, the custody arrangement is something like, stay at mom’s from Sunday – Tuesday and every other Saturday, and with dad the rest of the time)? Then you would complete the form based on the parent who provides most of your financial support during the last year.

Does this absolve your other parent from completing any information? NO, A SOLID AND RESOUNDING NO. Colleges may request (and here at MIT we do request) a Non-custodial parent Profile for students who do not live with both of their birth parents. This form should be completed by the non-custodial parent, and most likely will need to be done on-line using a new process this year. Once you (the student) registers for the Profile and indicate that your birth parents are not married, you will be sent an email with instructions, a temporary password, and a link which you should forward to your non-custodial parent for him or her to complete.

Does it end yet? Well, sort of…

Then it becomes our job in the financial aid office to determine which ones of your parents – birth and step – should be considered as providing part of the contribution we will expect from you. In most cases, we at MIT only will expect a contribution from two parents, and in most cases we will want those two parents to be the birth parents, but this varies widely case by case. If you are in one of these situations, you should talk to your financial aid counselor after you receive your financial aid award to understand how we analyzed your file and why we did what we did.

Once piece we cannot share with you, however, is who earns what or who is able to contribute what. Without full written permission from all parties, we must keep information you provide to us confidential; this is also true for the information we receive from your parents, stepparents, and others.

So hopefully now it is apparent who is a parent. If it isn’t, email me and we’ll talk about basic biology!

Take good care and a festive holiday to all.

Daniel Barkowitz is the Director of Student Financial Aid and Student Employment at MIT. An archive of his blog may be found at: Or his official site: permission granted to StudentsReview by Daniel Barkowitz, 2007

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