College financial aid applications can be confusing for both you and your children. Even some that may seem relatively easy, such as the FAFSA, are full of nuances you and your child may not have considered.
For example, who is the "custodial" parent? It could be that your child views the custodial parent as both of you if you have joint custody. Or it could be that you view yourself as the custodial parent because you have legal custody even though your child lives with you less than half of the year. Perhaps your ex views himself or herself as the custodial parent because it is he or she who claims your child as a dependent on taxes. Here is a look at whom to put down as the custodial parent.
The custodial parent for purposes of the FAFSA is the parent whom the child lived with most during the past year. If your ex makes significantly less money than you, it is perfectly legal for the two of you to approach the matter strategically by ensuring that your child spends just a little more time with your ex so that he or she can be the custodial parent on the FAFSA. This can help your child qualify for more financial aid. Keep in mind, though, that many colleges have their own financial aid applications in addition to the FAFSA, and they tend to ask for information on both parents as well as any stepparents.
Also, you should include child support in the custodial parent's income on the FAFSA.
Along with the custodial parent's information, the FAFSA asks for information on the custodial parent's spouse if there is one. So, you do need to consider that person's income in addition to that of the potential custodial parent. Obviously, a child from a two-partner family that makes $500,000 probably does not stand to qualify for as much financial aid as a child from a single-parent household making $40,000 a year. Which one you list on the FAFSA could come down to which parent the child spent just a day or two more with and is worth careful planning.
And if the division of parental time in the past year comes down to an exact 50/50, it is the parent who provides more financial support whom you list as custodial parent.