Publication Date: May 2003
DCL ID: GEN-03-07
Posted on 05-02-2003
Subject: Dependency Overrides
SUMMARY: This letter discusses the conditions that support the use of dependency overrides by financial aid administrators and reminds schools of the documentation required by the Department for such dependency overrides.
In the course of conducting recent compliance reviews of institutions participating in the Federal student aid programs, we found that some institutions have not been properly following the statutory requirements for making dependency overrides as well as not adequately supporting their dependency override decisions with sufficient documentation. In working to improve compliance at these institutions, we have determined that issuing comprehensive guidance that reviews the conditions for making dependency overrides and documenting these overrides would help improve compliance with these requirements at all schools participating in the Title IV, HEA programs.
Section 480(d) of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), defines an independent student as someone who fits into one or more of six specific categories. Under these categories a student is independent if he or she -
(1) Is 24 years of age or older by December 31 of the award year;
(2) Is an orphan or ward of the court or was a ward of the court until the individual reached the age of 18;
(3) Is a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States;
(4) Is a graduate or professional student;
(5) Is a married individual; or
(6) Has legal dependents other than a spouse.
In addition, an individual who does not qualify as an independent student under one of these six categories may be considered an "independent student" under section 480(d)(7) of the HEA. Under that provision, a student is considered to be an independent student if he or she;
. . . is a student for whom a financial aid administrator makes a documented determination of independence by reason of other unusual circumstances.
We call such a determination by a financial aid administrator a "dependency override."
Our application processing system (CPS) includes procedures that allow schools to process these dependency overrides on either an initial application (FAFSA or Renewal FAFSA) or through a correction to a previously submitted application. (Details on that process may be found in the 2002-2003 Federal Student Aid Handbook in the Application and Verification Guide, chapter 2, on pages AVG-28 & 29.)
Making Dependency Override Decisions
The first six categories of independent students in the statute describe those students for whom it is not appropriate to expect a parental contribution toward the students' postsecondary educational costs. The seventh category provides financial aid administrators with the ability to make a documented determination of independence based upon "other unusual circumstances."
Since its enactment, the Department has interpreted the phrase other unusual circumstances in section 480(d)(7) to mean unusual circumstances that make it inappropriate to expect a parental contribution for the student, and this concept has been reflected in earlier guidance. Section 480(d)(7) provides the financial aid administrator with great latitude in determining what constitutes unusual circumstances. We recognize that, with few exceptions, financial aid administrators have used this authority under the statute in a prudent and reasonable manner. We applaud the practice of financial aid professionals in seeking the advice and counsel of their colleagues on this and other professional judgment cases through the use of the Internet, and the efforts by associations of financial aid administrators in developing and conducting training workshops on the reasonable use of this authority.
These efforts have resulted in a body of practice within the financial aid profession for making dependency overrides that focuses on truly exceptional circumstances and consideration of individual cases, rather than contradicting the fundamental principles of financial aid need analysis or making de facto changes to the statutory dependency criteria as they are applied at individual schools. These practices include, for example, making dependency overrides in situations when a student's parent cannot be located, or where an otherwise dependent student has been a victim of domestic violence and is no longer residing with his or her parents.
Pages 28 and 29 of the Department's 2002-2003 Application and Verification Guide (AVG) emphasize the need to make dependency overrides only for students with unusual circumstances on a case-by-case basis and to document the unusual circumstances that the financial aid administrator relied upon in making the override. In recent years, the AVG has identified four conditions that, individually or in combination with one another, do not qualify as "unusual circumstances" or that do not merit a dependency override. Those circumstances are:
1. Parents refusing to contribute to the student's education;
2. Parents unwilling to provide information on the application or for verification;
3. Parents not claiming the students as a dependent for income tax purposes;
4. Student demonstrating total self-sufficiency.
The AVG further recognizes the common practice in the profession mentioned earlier that unusual circumstances could include an abusive family environment or abandonment by parents.
The law also requires that a determination of unusual circumstance(s) must be made each award year. A determination of independence in one award year does not mean that the student would automatically be an independent student in a subsequent award year. The financial aid administrator must affirm in the subsequent year that the conditions for determining the student to be independent continue to exist and continue to make expecting a parental contribution inappropriate.
Please note also that the determination by a financial aid administrator at one institution that a student should be considered independent is also not binding on another institution. The law requires that the financial aid administrator at the school the student is currently attending make the determination and that the institution must have sufficient documentation to support its decision.
Collecting and Maintaining Acceptable Documentation
Third party written documentation supporting a student's unusual circumstances is generally required. However, we understand that there may be some instances where the only documentation available to the financial aid administrator is a statement by the student. In these limited cases, the student's statement must include the facts related to the student's unusual circumstances, and the institution must include any other pertinent facts in writing.
Financial Aid Administrator's Written Determination
After reviewing all relevant documentation related to a student's assertion that there are unusual circumstances that support why he or she should be considered to be independent rather than dependent, the financial aid administrator must make a specific determination for the student. Upon making such a determination that a dependency override is warranted, the financial aid administrator must prepare a written statement of that determination, including the identification of the specific unusual circumstance upon which the financial aid administrator based his or her determination. The institution must maintain this documentation and the supporting documentation used to make each determination.
We encourage institutions to take this opportunity to review their dependency override policies and procedures to ensure consistency with the Department's existing guidance and documentation requirements that are noted above. We hope that you find this information and guidance helpful to you when you are considering using this significant responsibility that has been entrusted to you to meet the needs of students at your institution.
If you have questions on any of the information contained in this letter, please contact the FSA School Customer Service Call Center. Staff is available Monday through Friday between the hours of 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM (Eastern Time) at 1-800-433-7327. After hours calls will be accepted by an automated voice response system. Callers leaving their name and phone number will receive a return call the next business day. You may also FAX an inquiry to the Customer Service Call Center at (202) 275-5532, or e-mail one to email@example.com.
I look forward to continuing to work with you in improving access to postsecondary education for all students.
Jeffrey R. Andrade
Deputy Assistant Secretary for
Policy, Planning, and Innovation