This is a question that many students have a most do not like the answer. The federal government considers you a dependent student until the age of 24. Financial aid was designed to fill the gap between what the federal government expects the family to contribute (EFC) toward the students’ education. Reality may often be different from this calculation. If a student moves out of the house and gets an apartment and pays their own bills, that does not make them an independent student for financial aid purposes.
There are some circumstances that will make a student independent if they are under 24 years old. If they are married and/or if they have a child they support more than 50%, they can be considered independent. But if the student and their child live with the parents of the student and receive room and board, the student is not considered independent. The student must have income to demonstrate support of the child. A student who was in the foster care system at any point between 13 and 18 will be considered independent.
There are several oddities in the financial aid regulations. You become independent if you marry before age 24, but if you divorce before the age of 24, you become dependent again. Having yourself declared an emancipated minor may or may not make you independent.
Every financial aid office has some discretion to make someone independent through something called special circumstances. Usually that means that the student was removed from the home or cannot go home because of fear for their safety. It could mean that the student has no contact with their parents and was raised by a relative or that the mother has died and the father is unknown or incarcerated. Every financial aid office has a process for a dependency override. Most financial aid offices will require a letterhead statement or a form from a third party professional. This means they won’t take a letter from your boyfriend/girlfriend, aunt or brother. You will probably be asked to have a clergyman, counselor or therapist make a confirming statement that they know your declaration to be true.
Some parents refuse to provide income information for the FAFSA. That does not make you independent. You may take your parents to talk to a financial aid professional. Perhaps they are concerned about being liable for repayment of money you receive or maybe they are worried about who would see their income information. FA professionals can often explain the process and remove these concerns.
If you think you have special circumstances that would make you independent, talk to someone in your college’s financial aid office. Each college is allowed their own process.