When it comes to paying for college or getting financial aid, your status as a dependent or independent student makes all the difference. In some situations, however, you are automatically classified as an independent student.

Being a ward of the state as designated by a court of law, such as if you are in foster care, is one of those situations. If you are or were a ward of the state, there are key things to know before applying for financial aid.

Ward of the Court

A ward of the court is a minor child for whom the court is responsible. While many students think that having a legal guardian makes them a ward, that’s not the case. Sometimes legal guardians are appointed by the parents with a power of attorney document, which gives the guardian the power to care for the child, usually for a set period with parental consent. If the parental rights are terminated and a guardian is appointed through a court proceeding, the minor then becomes a ward of the court and is placed in foster care or adopted.

For the purposes of applying for financial aid, if you were in foster care or your guardian was appointed by a judge because your parents’ rights were terminated, then you can be considered a ward of the court — and an independent student. The most important aspect is who had legal custody of you. If it was still your parents, then you are not a true ward of the court. If the court had custody, then you can claim that status.

Dependency Status

If you’re single with no children, under the age of 24, and you haven’t served in the armed services, chances are you’re considered a dependent student. Since the federal government considers it both your and your family’s responsibility to fund your education, being a dependent could mean you get less financial aid.

If you are deemed an independent student — if you’re married, have children, are serving in the military, over the age of 24, or a ward of the court — then the federal government will only consider your income alone, not your parents’ information.

Filing the FAFSA as a Ward of the Court

To have your ward of the court status recognized by the federal government when applying for financial aid, you’ll need to claim that status on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA.

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In section 2, titled “Student Dependency Status,” there is a series of boxes that explain various situations. If you can answer “yes” to any one of them, then you are considered an independent student and will not have to provide parental income or tax information.

The statements pertinent to wards of the court are:

  • Since I turned age 13, both of my parents were deceased.
  • I was a dependent or ward of the court since turning age 13.
  • I was in foster care since turning age 13.
  • I am currently or was in legal guardianship (ordered by the court, not your parents).

As you complete the FAFSA, pay attention to that section because this is how you will alert the Department of Education that you’re an independent student. Next, you’ll need to prove it.

Proving Independent Status as a Ward of the Court

Each school has its own policy regarding how to prove your ward status. For example, Arizona State University requires that you certify your status on Question 52 of the FAFSA, and provide official court documentation showing your status. Most schools will expect the same.

The easiest way to offer that information is with a Ward of the Court verification letter, which can be obtained by your caseworker. The letter will contain your court case number, dates when you entered and/or exited the foster care system, and it provides a contact name and number in case your school has questions about your case.

Check with your financial aid office first to find out their specific requirements because they may require even more proof of independence. Give yourself plenty of time to complete the steps or compile whatever documentation you need.

Summary

Being in foster care or having a court-appointed guardian doesn’t mean you can’t get financial aid or attend college. In fact, if you have the required documentation and fill out the FAFSA correctly, you will probably receive more financial aid than the average student, based upon your independent status.

Make sure to talk to your school’s financial aid office and ask what you’ll need to provide to prove your independence. Complete your FAFSA right away and stay in touch with your school’s officials to maintain an edge in securing the best financing.