What You Need to Know About Filing the FAFSA

Happy New Year! It's that time of year again when families that have a child starting college this coming fall need to complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Don't make the mistake of assuming you earn too much or won't be eligible for anything. College is expensive and many families, even those with higher incomes, are eligible for some type of aid.

It's important to file this form as soon after January 1 as possible. I understand the form is looking for information from your 2013 tax forms, but you can submit the forms using estimated numbers.

Why file now? Because state and college based financial aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Filing the form now ensures you won't miss any college deadlines, and when you file the FAFSA it will also submit your information to your state aid programs. State funding is limited so you want to file early. For example on the federal website, for the 2014-2015 school year Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and the state of Washington all gave this deadline for their state aid programs: "As soon as possible after January 1, 2014. Awards made until funds are depleted." The point is do not wait, it could hurt you.

At the risk of repeating myself, I think it's important to rerun my list of five important factors to keep in mind as you tackle this important task:

1. If you plan to submit your FAFSA electronically, obtain a pin number for the student and one parent. The pin is used to electronically sign your completed FAFSA. This form requires the signature of the student and one parent for submission. Also gather the title IV school codes for the schools you will list on the FAFSA. Write all these numbers down and put them in a folder for easy access.

2. Gather all the materials you'll need before you get started. Financial aid forms will typically require information from your federal tax return, social security numbers of parents and the student, the student's driver's license number, current bank statements, investment statements, mortgage information and untaxed income statements (1099 income, untaxed social security income, child support received, veterans benefits, etc).

Make a copy of each document as you collect them and add them to your folder. This will be helpful if you have additional financial aid forms that need to be completed, are selected for verification, or to confirm the information you have submitted.

3. When completing the FAFSA or any other financial aid forms answer all questions. If the question does not apply to you, enter a zero or N/A (whichever is appropriate). If you leave a question blank the processor will not know whether the question should be zero or if you simply missed the question altogether. This can cause delays in the processing of your form which you do not want.

4. When you file any form keep a copy of the form you are submitting for your records. Also keep a record of the date you are submitting that form. When you file online you are usually provided with an opportunity to get a copy of the form before you submit and a time/date stamp for the submission. If you mail your form, mail it using delivery confirmation. You then have a record of when your form was mailed and confirmation that it was delivered. These records are useful if a question arises about when your form was submitted.

5. Finally, the information you submit on financial aid forms may not always accurately reflect the financial situation in your household. As you complete the forms ask yourself if there is anything occurring in your household that is affecting your ability to pay for your child's education. Are you supporting an aging parent? Does your income for 2013 have any one-time income such as a bonus, or one-time withdrawal from a 401k or other retirement account? Do you pay for private school education for the student's siblings? Do you have unusually high medical bills? Will you be laid off from your job or will your hours be reduced in 2014?

These types of situations can affect your ability to assist your child financially but are not apparent on financial aid forms. If this is the case in your household you must let the colleges know about the situation through a special circumstance notice. Colleges have the ability to alter your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) based upon a situation such as one listed above, but it is up to you to make them aware of the situation.

Don't stress, approach this job one step at a time. Make a resolution to get started on this as soon as possible. I wish you a safe, happy and healthy new year.

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