My daughter has been sending me steady reminders about filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. If you–or your child–plan to attend college or grad school between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, the FAFSA form became available for filing on October 1, 2019. The form is used to apply for financial aid for college or grad school and must include income documentation, including federal tax information. Here’s what you need to know.
The easiest way to complete a FAFSA form is online (be sure to head directly to the official site here–other sites may charge you money and may not keep your information secure). If you’re new, just click on “Start here” to begin your application.
The FAFSA will first ask for your FSA ID. An FSA ID is a username and password that you use to log in to the U.S. Department of Education websites. Students and parents each need a separate FSA ID to sign the FAFSA form online. You can create an FSA ID directly on the site.
The FAFSA requires personal information like your name and address as well as your Social Security number. If you don’t have a Social Security number and you are entitled to one, you should take steps to get one (more about taxpayer ID numbers here). If you don’t have a Social Security number because you’re not entitled to one, you cannot complete the FAFSA. If you have a Social Security number but can’t find it or your card, you can apply for a replacement card (more on that here).
The FAFSA also requires financial information, including filing status and which tax form you file. The easiest way to provide your tax information is to use the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT). With the IRS DRT, eligible students and parents can transfer their 2018 federal income tax information into the 2020-2021 FAFSA form. And, if you’re worried about privacy (remember those attempted hacks?), you can rest a little easier: according to the IRS, additional security and privacy protections have been added to the IRS DRT. The tool is now, they claim, “the fastest, most accurate way to input your tax return information into the FAFSA form.”
There’s no separate website to use the tool: you access the IRS DRT from the online FAFSA form by clicking “Link to IRS.” You’ll log in by providing your name and other information exactly as you provided it on your tax return. Once you’re authenticated with the IRS, you can either transfer your information from the IRS or choose to return to the FAFSA.
It’s important to note that if you use the IRS DRT to transfer your tax return information from the IRS, the specific tax information will not show up on your onscreen version of the FAFSA. For your protection, the answer to each question is replaced with “Transferred from the IRS.”
Most folks are eligible to use the IRS DRT if they’ve already filed their taxes. However, some taxpayers cannot use the tool, including those taxpayers who have filed an amended tax return, called a federal form 1040X, Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return (downloads as a PDF). Other taxpayers who are not eligible to use the tool include those filing Married Filing Separately or Head of Household, and those who filed a Puerto Rican tax return, a foreign tax return or a form 1040-NR/1040-NR-EZ. Additionally, the tool is not available for students whose parents’ marital status is “Unmarried and both legal parents living together.”
If you filed a federal income tax on extension, you may need to enter your tax information manually. You should generally allow up to three weeks for electronically filed returns, or 11 weeks for mailed returns, to allow the IRS to process and enter that information. If you can’t wait that long, you will need to manually enter their tax return information.
If you are a dependent student, you will also be asked to provide information about your parents, including their federal income tax information. Don’t simply rely on the IRS’ definition of dependency–there are separate standards for FAFSA, though there is some overlap. Consider this specific list of questions used to determine whether you’re a dependent for FAFSA purposes.
- If you answered yes to any of the questions on the list, you are not considered a dependent for FAFSA purposes and typically need not provide your parents’ financial information on the form. Exceptions do exist. Specifically, health profession students and law school students may be required to provide parent information no matter their dependency status.
- If you answered no to any of the questions on the list, you are considered a dependent student and must provide information about your parents. This is true even if you do not live with your parents. It’s also true even if your parents refuse to help you with the FAFSA and do not pay your expenses.
If your parents don’t wish to help you complete the FAFSA, just say so on the form when it asks whether you can provide information about your parents (select the “I am unable to provide information about my parent(s)” option). You can only make this notation online: the option is not available on the paper version.
If you have special circumstances, you’ll need to take some extra steps. If, for example, your parents are incarcerated, you don’t know where your parents live, or you’ve left home due to an abusive situation, fill out the FAFSA and indicate that you have unique circumstances (find out more here). You’ll be allowed to finish the FAFSA without entering parent information, but your FAFSA will not be fully processed. It’s your responsibility to get in touch with the financial aid office at your school as soon as possible to find out the next steps.
The IRS DRT isn’t the only tool that can be used to complete the FAFSA. The information needed to complete the FAFSA can be found on a previously filed tax return. If you don’t have a copy of a tax return that you need, ask your preparer. You can also order a tax transcript directly from the IRS using the “Get Transcript” tool at www.irs.gov/transcript, by calling 1-800-908-9946 to order a copy, or using a federal form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return (downloads as a PDF).
If you’re on the fence or having trouble, don’t put it off: Deadlines apply. I know it’s confusing, but each state and school sets its own deadline. You’ll have to check with the school directly for those dates, but you can check the FAFSA deadlines by state here. For federal purposes, the online FAFSA form must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2021.
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