- Marriage can impact your federal financial aid amount, but whether it will get you more or less aid depends on your unique financial situation.
- If you marry someone with a high income or a lot of assets, it will likely negatively affect how much aid you get.
- If you and your partner both have low incomes, you will likely qualify for more federal aid.
If you (or your child) plan on attending college, you’re probably familiar with the acronym FAFSA. FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a form that allows you to potentially get federal grants, federal student loans and work-study positions to attend eligible schools.
If you’re not familiar with FAFSA, you should be. Research shows that in any given academic year, more than $2 billion in federal education grants go unclaimed. But of course, the FAFSA process can be complicated and bring more questions than answers. One of the common questions is about how marriage changes how much federal aid you can get. Let’s take a look.
How does marriage impact your FAFSA?
When you apply for federal student aid, the Department of Education has a formula they use to calculate how much you should receive. The factors they consider include:
The cost of attendance at your school (which includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, child care, and other things)
How much money you and your family will be able to contribute to your education costs
They then subtract the expected family contribution from the cost of attendance. Financial aid is intended to make up the difference.
Many college students are likely still dependents of their parents, making their parents’ income one of the main considerations of their level of financial need. If the parents are married, both spouses’ finances are put under the microscope. Alternatively, if you’re an atypical college student who’s already married, your spouse’s income and assets would be up for review, too.
So marriage will impact your FAFSA eligibility based on how your shared financial situation differs from either your financial situation as a single person or your financial situation as a child of your parents. If your parents are well-off and your spouse is not, you will likely qualify for far more federal aid. But if the reverse is true, you will likely see far less federal aid.
The same is true if you’ve been filing for FAFSA as an independent. If your wife or husband improves your overall financial picture, you’ll probably get less federal aid. But if you both earn low incomes and have few assets, you could see a boost.
What about other relationship statuses?
Depending on your relationship status, you may or may not need to include your partner’s information on your FAFSA application. If you live with a partner you’re not married to, you’re likely not married in the eyes of FAFSA. However, if you live in a state that recognizes common law marriages, you may have to apply as a married person.
And if you’re married but separated, you can choose the separated option only if you’re considered legally separated by your state of residence or if you live separately as if you weren’t married by choice. However, if you live separately but still as a married couple, you should choose the married option.
What if my marriage status changes from one academic year to the next?
Your FAFSA form will ask whether or not you're married based on the day you’re completing the form—the FAFSA is completed annually. So your status might very well change from one year to the next, both on your FAFSA form and your tax returns.
If you got married between last year and this one, you’ll need to add your partner’s financial information. If you legally separated between last year and this one, you’ll need to remove it and only include your own financial information.
Filing your FAFSA form can be tricky, but understanding how it works can help you make the right decisions. The Department of Education is trying to understand your whole financial picture—whether that means your parents, your spouse or just you—then offer you no more or less than what you need for college. Marital status is just one part of that overall picture, and it can impact how you pay for college.