Non-custodial for administrative purposes only. Avoiding conflict in the college financial aid process.

Understanding how divorced parents are categorized when applying for financial aid is key to overcoming the negative feelings that come with being defined as a “non-custodial parent”, and ultimately avoiding conflict with your ex.


The College Board sent me an email the other day letting me know that my child is applying for college financial aid, and as the “non-custodial” parent I should complete my section of his CSS financial aid application. They let me know that “failure to complete this requirement will delay processing of your child’s financial aid application.”

The voices in divorced dad’s brain heard the email say, “Hey deadbeat! Your kid wants to go to college. We know you haven’t done anything for him recently. His mom, the custodial parent, has already done her part by filling out the required forms. So get your act together and do something for you child, for once.”

Luckily I had been planning for this day for the previous two years, and was able to ignore the voices in my head. My ex-wife and I have 50/50 physical and legal custody of our kids, but this is unimportant to the financial aid process. Understanding how divorced parents are categorized when applying for financial aid is key to overcoming the negative feelings that come with being defined as a “non-custodial parent”, and ultimately avoiding conflict with your ex.

FAFSA and CSS – Only one custodial parent allowed
Colleges base their decisions on financial aid packages to students on a number of factors, but the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile) are the two primary ways that schools learn about what types of aid families might qualify for. The FAFSA qualifies students for various federal aid, and the CSS Profile qualifies students for various non-federal aid.

For both applications divorced parents must designate only one of the parents as the custodial parent.

Two years ago I attended a parent financial aid night at my son’s school. The incredulous groans of every divorced parent in the audience resonated through the auditorium. “But we share everything about the children equally,” pressed one parent. In response to frustrated questions the presenter repeated over and over, “for the financial aid process one of the parents will need to be designated as having 50.1 % custody, and the other parent will need to be the non-custodial parent.”

This will feel unfair to one of the parents until you can realize that this is nothing more than an administrative designation, and custody, the real custody, has nothing to do with applying for financial aid.

Divorced Dad’s Solution
While negotiating the divorce settlement I asked my lawyer to put in writing that the kids’ primary residence would be designated as my ex-wife’s house “for administrative purposes only”. The statement made clear that this designation had no bearing on the 50/50 physical and legal custody that was agreed to in the settlement.

It was this designation that allowed me, emotionally, to let go of the need to be deemed the custodial parent in the financial aid process. Last week I texted my ex-wife after talking it over with my son, and asked her to create accounts for the FAFSA and CSS Profile. The email that I received from the College Board was triggered after she filled out the custodial parent section of the form. The FAFSA does not ask for the non-custodial parent’s financial information. Colleges to whom your child is applying may ask the non-custodial parent to fill out one of their own supplemental financial forms.

The financial aid process, which like so many other things in divorce can cause an emotional reaction, can be more easily managed if we plan for it ahead of time. And remember that in this process being designated the non-custodial parent is not an accurate label of what you mean to your child. It is a label for administrative purposes only.

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