Working together to secure financial aid for college

Catherine and Jason have been divorced for eight years. They have one child, who we’ll call “Crystal,” who is 16 and a junior in high school. Like many parents, they don’t feel like they’ve saved enough for their daughter to attend college. But, they’ve worked hard — primarily as individuals, rather than as a team — to accumulate as much money as possible, so that when Crystal graduates, she will do so without the burden of tremendous loans to repay.

“The less debt, the better,” Catherine says.

“Yeah,” Jason agrees, “especially if she attends grad school later, we don’t want her having to pay back a fortune.”

Crystal’s parents both work hard at their respective jobs, and, though they don’t communicate well, each credits the other with being a good parent who wants what is best for their daughter. When it comes to saving for college, Jason and Catherine seem to have a handle on the situation. For instance, both have been putting money away for several years. Grandparents have been chipping in as well.

But, they could be doing more to allow Crystal to get the best (highest) financial aid offer when the time comes to apply. To do so, improved communication and a willingness to cooperate will be needed.

For instance, when asked about which parent will assist Crystal in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, neither had an answer. Jason, in particular, had been convinced that they would both have to submit financial information, and was surprised to learn that, apparently, this is not the case when it comes to many schools.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is used by many colleges and universities to determine eligibility for federal, state, and college-sponsored financial aid, including grants, educational loans, and work-study programs.

But note that, while numerous colleges and universities rely on this particular application alone in regard to awarding aid, there are also schools that require an additional application for which both parents need to share financial data.

Catherine and Jason have a joint residential custody agreement, meaning that Crystal spends essentially the same amount of time with each parent.

Now, read the following from the form:

“If your parents are divorced or separated, answer the questions about the parent you lived with more during the past 12 months …” (emphasis added).

This language appears on the form under “Notes for Step Four, questions 59–94” (on page 9).

When parents are divorced, FAFSA asks about only one parent’s finances. Crystal, who lives roughly the same amount of time with each parent, could spend a little more time with either one of them. That parent would be the one that the application is interested in.

In other words, Crystal’s family would seem to have a choice as to which parent’s information is included; that is, if Mom and Dad can work together on this.

If both Jason and Catherine earn about the same income, and their other finances (assets, etc.) are similar, it probably won’t matter much which parent fills out the form.

But, let’s say that Catherine makes $150,000 and Jason $30,000. Then, it would make sense for Jason’s information to go on the application; since he earns less, the amount of aid awarded will probably be higher than if Catherine’s information is used.

Note that if a parent has remarried, information about the step-parent is required.

This example is just one that could be given. The bigger point is this: as divorced parents, we need to learn about how financial aid works and communicate with the other parent. By being informed and working together, we may make it possible for a child to borrow less for an education. And like an education, the benefits of having debt that is manageable can last a lifetime.

New York City and Long Island-based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabi‌n@lc-‌media‌te.com, (718) 229–6149, or go to lc-me‌diate.com/‌. Follow him on Facebook at www.faceb‌ook.com/‌lchab‌in.

Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.