I’m filling out the FAFSA®, who counts as my parent, and what’s my household size?
One of the more challenging aspects of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) can be figuring out who counts as your family when it comes to the FAFSA® and what your household size is as you fill out the application. The definition of family can be flexible in the real world, but for the FAFSA®, it isn’t.
We’ll cover in this article exactly who counts as your parent and how to determine your household size as you fill out the FAFSA®.
Understanding what the FAFSA® is looking for when it comes to household size
The FAFSA® is built around the premise that students and their families can contribute financially to a student’s education expenses if they have the resources to do so. That’s why the critical figure the FAFSA® produces is called Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
Of note, the EFC is transitioning to the Student Aid Index (SAI), a new methodology for calculating students’ eligibility for federal student aid, beginning with the 2024-25 FAFSA®. This change is the result of the FAFSA® Simplification Act, which has been passed into law and amended. The U.S. Department of Education has announced it will provide guidelines on the SAI at a later date.
For now, students and their families should still familiarize themselves with EFC. To generate that number, the FAFSA® gathers a family’s financial information to get a clear picture of the family’s financial situation. But what constitutes a family? Who’s included in household size? For many, that answer can be complicated.
Since the FAFSA® is more concerned with finances than relationships, the application attempts to define “family” as those who are expected to be financially supported by the same head of household (who, as of note, is also considered to be a part of the household size), even if that isn’t the case.
Financial Student Aid (FSA) established guidelines to determine whether a student should be considered financially dependent on a legal parent or financially independent from their legal parent, which heavily factors into this process.
Who’s my legal parent?
Dependent students must include their parent's financial details on the FAFSA®. Determining who qualifies as a legal parent can be challenging, though. In large part that's because the FAFSA®’s objective is to determine who should be financially responsible for a student, and not necessarily who is the financially responsible individual.
The FAFSA® limits the definition of a legal parent to a “biological or adoptive mother or father or the student’s stepparent, if the biological parent or adoptive mother or father has remarried at the time of application.” Grandparents, other relatives, godparents, foster parents, and legal guardians don’t qualify as legal parents unless they’ve formally adopted the student.
Dependent students should use the guide below to determine which parents need to be included on their application, basing it on the last 12 months or the most recent year that they received financial support.
Family situations and how to think about who your legal parent is
Married parents who are living together: Both parents are considered your legal parents in this case.
Parents who’ve never married and aren’t living together: The parent you’ve lived with most over the last 12 months is considered your legal parent in this case. If you spent equal time with both parents, enter the information of the parent who provided more financial support over the last 12 months or the most recent year that you received financial support.
Unmarried parents who are living together: Both parents are considered your legal parents in this case.
Remarried parents: The parent you’ve lived with most over the last year, and their spouse (your stepparent), are considered your legal parents in this case.
Divorced or separated parents: The parent you’ve lived with the most over the last year is considered your legal parent. If you spent equal time living with both parents, enter the parent’s information who provided more financial support.
A widowed parent: In this case, your remaining parent is considered your legal parent.
A single parent: In this case, your sole parent is considered your legal parent.
How do I determine my household size?
Since a family’s budget is directly tied to the number of people (a.k.a. household size) the family financially supports, household size is a crucial factor in calculating a student’s EFC. It’s important that students and parents get this number right.
In simple terms, the household size is the heads of the household plus all of the dependents in the house. Any children whom the FAFSA® would consider a dependent student should be included in this number. Unborn children who will be born during the award year can also be included.
Dependent students should use this formula to determine their household size:
You plus the number of legal parents (one or two) plus the number of other children and dependents that’ll receive more than half of their support from your parents for the award year.
Independent students should use this formula:
You plus your spouse (if married) plus the number of children and other dependents that’ll receive more than half of their support from you and your spouse for the award year.
Once you’ve determined how many people are in your household, you’ll be asked how many people in that household will be attending college during the academic year for which the FAFSA® is being filed. It’s important to always include yourself in that number.
Understanding how to fill out specific fields on the FAFSA® appropriately is crucial and can impact how much financial aid you ultimately may receive. Beyond ensuring you know how to fill out certain fields on the FAFSA®, familiarize yourself with the FAFSA® due dates so you file on time.