What does tax advisory have to do with the FAFSA?

Read the Article

There is no one more qualified to advise your clients on life events than you, their tax professional—and that means much more than tax prep and planning. No one else has the insight into your clients’ true financial picture.

Clients come to us for tax advice, but they also want us to provide tax advisory services to help them in other ways. One of those is the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. There are thousands of families across the country missing out on millions of dollars in grants and federal money simply because they are not aware of how to properly fill out a FASFA application and, in some cases, not filling out the application at all.

The FAFSA should be completed whether their child decides to attend an Ivy League school, local university, or community college, and because you are well-informed on your clients’ financial background, you can help them in numerous ways when it comes to planning for college, including advising them on 529 plans, for example.

Why complete the FAFSA?

There’s no doubt student loan debt forgiveness is a hot topic. Is it best for college-bound students to apply for federal aid as individuals as soon as they turn age 19? Despite being a popular myth, the child’s age and lower income compared to the parent’s higher annual salaries are not beneficial at all. However, it is not always the case that the parent’s income reduces the amount of grant or loan money the student may potentially receive. In addition, many families probably are not aware that the federal work-study program is a federal student aid program, and that filling out the FAFSA application is the only way to qualify.

Federal aid also includes Pell grants and federal student loans. Student loans are subsidized and unsubsidized. A subsidized loan occurs when the U.S. Department of Education pays the loan interest after the recipient is enrolled as at least a half-time student. An unsubsidized loan’s interest begins to accrue the minute it is disbursed to the recipient, even though the student is enrolled in school.

In my experience, all students should file the FAFSA even if they believe their parents make too much money to qualify for any awarded money. Remember that not all financial aid is based on need. It is possible to qualify for a merit scholarship, but it, too, requires a completed FAFSA to be on file.

Tips to help you and your clients

Parents who have students between ages 19 and 24 that live with them are eligible to claim their child as a dependent on their tax return as a full-time student. In addition, parents who pay for summer semesters out of pocket are eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit when filing their taxes for that tax year.

The FAFSA considers students as independent or dependent. There are 10 questions that define your status. If you answer “yes” to any of the questions, then you are considered independent and do not need to provide parental information when submitting the application. If you answer “no” to all questions, then parental information is required and the FAFSA considers the student as a dependent. Before submitting the application, select dependency status questions on the website to determine your status. Carefully review each question and answer accordingly, because a wrong answer could mean thousands of dollars lost. 

Pro Tip: The FAFSA is free to fill out and submit! No one wants to leave money on the table. You’ll know which clients have dependent children based on their tax returns—but you should naturally know these and other details based on your ongoing relationship throughout the year.

Before you begin, remember to click on the FAFSA checklist to determine what documents are needed to complete the application. While it takes applicants less than an hour to fill out and submit the FAFSA, it could take much longer to locate prior tax returns and other important documents. Again, this is where you can help.

Pro Tip: Use “prior-prior year” tax information to complete the FAFSA instead of the prior year’s tax information. In other words, using 2020 tax information is sufficient to complete the 2022 and 2023 forms. This allows you to file the FAFSA before having to file the 2021 tax return. 

In situations of divorce, the FAFSA should be filled out by the parent who gave the most financial support to the student in the last 12 months. For a parent who pays child support, the amount of child support can be deducted from their income to reduce the total income, so that the student has a chance to receive more federal aid. 

October 1 is the first day to fill out the FAFSA for the new year. If your clients have dependents currently attending college and want to continue receiving federal loans and/or grants, I encourage you to fill out the application each year until they graduate. There is roughly $243 billion of federal aid every year; if clients are not filling out FAFSA each year, they are potentially leaving money on the table while others are getting their piece of the pie.

Final Pro Tip: Be aware of companies that charge a fee to fill out the form. While it may seem easier and less time-consuming to engage a service to help you complete the FAFSA, you will face the same issues regarding locating financial information—and be stuck with a fee that could be better spent for books, room, and board.

Comments are closed.