Any student seeking financial aid through government programs must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, some circumstances can create complications in completing this form. Typically, the FAFSA requires financial information from parents. But for students who have lost one of both parents, the process can have additional challenges that you will have to navigate to complete the form.

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 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 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.

You may be asked to submit a death certificate for your parents, especially if your parent passed away after previously being included in your FAFSA documentation. Some schools may still request W2s or other financial information from your parents if they recently became deceased but will not consider that income on your application. Talk to the admissions office for your school to determine what is needed.

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 must change your dependency status to become an independent student.

As an independent student, you’ll report only your financial information (unless you’re married, which means 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.

How life insurance affects financial aid

If you’re a beneficiary on a parent’s life insurance policy and 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. However, 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.

The bottom line

Students who have lost one or both parents may experience challenges when filing the FAFSA. You are only required to submit the financial information of your parents who are still alive, and if both of your parents are deceased, you are considered an independent student. None of their financial information will be considered in your application — though any death benefit you receive from your parents’ life insurance may affect your financial aid.