It can be an advantage for a family when the co-parents earn drastically different incomes. This is because, with some strategic planning, they can make it possible for their child to be eligible for more student aid via the FAFSA.
Here is an overview of the concept that applies to divorced parents and those who were never married to each other.
The FAFSA considers the custodial parent's income instead of the income of both legal parents. For this purpose, the custodial parent is the parent the child has lived with more during the past year. So, say Parent A makes $300,000 and Parent B makes $50,000. It could make more sense to plan ahead for the child to spend more time with Parent B.
Of course, there can be exceptions to the wisdom of this strategy such as if Parent A has a lot of dependents while Parent B has only one minor child. The FAFSA would then recognize these other income constraints. Also, if a custodial parent receives child support, he or she must list that amount as income on the application.
There is one other general wrinkle to consider about the custodial parent on the FAFSA, and that is stepparents. Take the above example of Parent A making $300,000 and Parent B making $50,000. If Parent A was single and had three children while Parent B had remarried to someone making $400,000 and who has no children, it may be preferable for financial reasons to list Parent A as custodial parent instead of Parent B. If the custodial parent's spouse has an income, the FAFSA requires this information.
Some students think that if they spent time equally with both of their parents, both of their incomes should be listed. This rarely happens. Instead, the parent on the form is the one who provided the most financial support to the child in the past year.
Each family has different priorities and considerations when it comes to college planning. College can be expensive for even higher-income families, so knowing how to approach the FAFSA can help. Individual schools, however, might consider both legal parents' income for financial aid.