Even former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who served under the Bush Administration, admits that completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is intimidating. Spellings indicated in 2008 that millions of students who are eligible for federal aid don’t even apply due to the complicated process. The FAFSA allows the federal government to identify how much you can reasonably expect your family to contribute financially to your education. The government expects all students to contribute something. The contribution can come through scholarships, student loans or assistance from your parents, and your stepparent’s income usually counts in determining that.
Identifying Your 'Parent'
The parent you lived with most during the 12 months preceding the date of your application is the one who must complete and submit it to the government. Since a year has 365 days, one parent usually comes out ahead, even if you divided your time almost equally between them. In a leap year with an even number of days, or if for some other reason you did not live more days with one parent than the other, then the parent who contributed the most financial support to you is the one who must complete your FAFSA.
When Stepparents Count
Your stepfather’s obligation to include his income on your FAFSA depends on whether you lived predominantly with your mother during the last year. A stepparent’s income only counts if he is married to the parent who is completing the FAFSA for you on the date that you submit it. So if you spent 183 or more of the last 365 days at your father’s home, and your mother has married someone else, you would not have to include her new spouse’s income. Your father would complete your FAFSA. But if you spent 183 days or more at your mother’s home, then you must include your stepfather’s income. The FAFSA defines a year as the 12 months leading up to the date of your application, not the calendar year.
Extent of Included Income
If your mother remarried a few months before you submit your FAFSA, you must include your stepfather’s income for the entire preceding 12 months, not just back to the date of the wedding. This is true even if she remarries the day before you complete and submit your FAFSA.
The federal government does not recognize prenups exempting a spouse from paying toward his stepchild’s education. According to Adventures in Education, an agreement made between two individuals has no legal authority to bind a third party, such as the government. Under federal law, since your stepfather’s income contributes to your mother’s household, it is included in your family’s available resources for your education.
Since remarriage is a voluntary event, some parents postpone it until after their child has graduated from college, especially if the stepparent does not want to participate in the FAFSA process. If your parents have shared custody of you and you only marginally spend more time in your mother’s home than your father’s, and if your father hasn’t remarried, you can also alter your living arrangements a little and have your father submit the FAFSA on your behalf. This only makes sense, however, if his income doesn’t exceed the joint income of your mother and her new husband.