Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the cornerstone to receiving financial aid for college. However, the form can feel complex in the best of circumstances — and if you’ve lost a parent, the process can be even harder to navigate. If one of your parents has died, your form may look a little different.

Who counts as a parent on the FAFSA?

The U.S. Department of Education considers the following to be a legal parent:

  • Biological parent.
  • Adoptive parent.
  • Stepparent (as long as they are still married to the student’s biological parent).
  • Person determined to be a parent by the state.

Foster parents, grandparents, legal guardians and widowed stepparents are not considered legal parents for the purposes of the FAFSA.

How to fill out the FAFSA if your parent is deceased

If one parent has died, there’s no way to use their income when completing the FAFSA. When completing your form, you’ll fill out the parental information for only the surviving parent. Do not report any financial information for your deceased parent, even if they’ve recently passed away.

If both of your parents have died, you’re considered an independent student. This means that your information — not your parent’s — is evaluated, including your income, assets and expenses. Step Three of the FAFSA will ask: “​​At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care or were you a dependent or ward of the court?” Checking “yes” next to this question will allow you to skip Step Four, which asks about your parents’ information.

What to do if your parent died after filling out the FAFSA

If a parent died after you submitted your FAFSA, there are ways to adjust your FAFSA. A good first course of action is to call the financial aid office of the school you’re planning to attend and request a form to update your financial aid information. Different schools might have different procedures and forms to complete.

You can also go to the Federal Student Aid website and update your Student Aid Report (SAR) to reflect the most recent change. If both of your parents have died, you’ll need to change your dependency status to become an independent student.

As an independent student, you’ll report only your financial information (unless you’re married, in which case you’ll include your spouse’s information as well). Your financial information is one of the most important factors in determining how much financial aid you’re eligible for, so if you didn’t previously qualify for federal scholarships and grants because of your parent’s income, you might now.

Does life insurance affect financial aid?

If you’re a beneficiary on a parent’s life insurance policy and you receive a payout after their death, that payout typically counts as income to the beneficiary. This, in turn, could decrease how much financial aid you’re eligible for.

However, you may be able to appeal this with your college given the circumstances. Some colleges will make an exception and ignore the death benefit when calculating your total income, though the payout may still be considered an asset to the extent that it hasn’t been spent — which could disqualify you from some need-based aid. It’s best to speak with your financial aid office with questions about the process or to learn more about your options.