Claiming FAFSA Independent Student Status Due To Special Circumstances

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Bars inside jailhouse.

Having parents who are incarcerated is a special circumstance that may qualify you as an independent.

Special circumstances allow students to file as independent when completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The federal government lets financial aid officers use their professional judgment on a case-by-case basis to make necessary adjustments to your financial aid package. This means that if you feel that you need to be considered an independent student, you may be able to qualify for professional judgment if you can provide proof of your “special circumstances.”


Claiming FAFSA independent student status due to special circumstances is a very limited exception and very difficult to achieve. You cannot claim special circumstances on the basis of any of the following reasons:

  • Your parent/guardian refuses to contribute toward your education.
  • Your parent/guardian refuses to provide the information you need to complete the FAFSA.
  • Your parent does not claim you as a dependent on their income taxes.
  • You’re self-sufficient and don’t rely on your parents.

However, if you are not already considered an independent student based on the federal government’s guidelines, you may be able to claim independence based on these special circumstances:

  • You were abandoned by your parents and/or you do not know how to locate your parents.
  • Your health or safety is being threatened due to an abusive family environment.
  • Your parents are incarcerated.

Remember: Only your school’s financial aid office has the ability to apply professional judgment to your particular situation to determine whether it warrants a change to independent status. If you feel as though you meet the criteria above to claim independent student status, then here are the steps you’ll need to take:

Step 1: Complete The FAFSA

In the FAFSA application, you’ll be asked whether or not you can provide financial information about your parents. If you select “no,” then you will have the option to indicate that your situation meets the special circumstance requirements listed above. After that, complete and submit the rest of the FAFSA.

Step 2: Contact Your Financial Aid Office

As soon as you complete your FAFSA, contact the financial aid office of your current college or prospective colleges (if you are a freshman/transfer student) and explain your situation to them.

Step 3: Provide Any Additional Information Requested

Your school(s) will ask for additional information to verify your special circumstances. This is because your school is trying to figure out if you are really an independent student who can apply for aid without your parents’ information, so any evidence that you can provide to support your case will be helpful. (Hint: Look for information such as court documents, letters from social workers/counselors, or any other legal document to prove your position).

Step 4: Wait

It is totally up to your school to make the determination on your independent status. If your school decides that your circumstances do not make you an independent student, then you’ll have to provide your parents’ information in order to qualify fully for federal financial aid.

Without your parents’ information, the financial aid office may deem you eligible for unsubsidized loans—but again, it’s totally up to their judgment of the situation.

For more information on the difference between FAFSA independent vs. dependent student status, check out our short (but super helpful) video FAFSA Independent vs. Dependent Student Status Explained.

(Photo: Still Burning)

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