Same Sex Marriage Recognized for Federal Student Aid Purposes

By Staff

The U.S. Education Department announced in December that the federal government will now recognize all legal same-sex marriages for the purposes of applying for and receiving federal financial aid.

Here’s the statement from the department:
As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s ongoing efforts to implement inclusive policies that reflect the diversity of American families, and consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in United States v. Windsor, the Department announced today new guidance on the use of “marriage” and “spouse” in the federal student aid programs, including on the completion of the FAFSA, the federal student aid form.

The new guidance is based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor, which struck down a key part of DOMA. Under today’s guidance, the Department will recognize a student or a parent as legally married if the couple was legally married in any jurisdiction that recognizes the marriage, regardless of whether the marriage is between a couple of the same sex or opposite sex, and regardless of where the student or couple lives or the student is attending school. This guidance impacts all questions concerning marriage and marital status on the FAFSA.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Windsor, the Department had interpreted all provisions of Title IV of the Higher Education Act – which authorizes the federal student aid programs – consistent with Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibited all federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages. Specifically, Section 3 provides that “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” This meant that while a student under 24 who was married to an opposite sex spouse was considered independent for financial aid purposes, that same student would have been considered dependent if he or she was married to a same sex spouse because the marriage was not previously recognized. In Windsor, the Supreme Court held that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional because it violates the principles of due process and equal protection.

“We must continue to ensure that every single American is treated equally in the eyes of the law, and this important guidance for students is another step forward in that effort,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “As students fill out their FAFSA this coming year, I’m thrilled they’ll be able to do so in a way that is more fair and just.”

In April 2013, the Department began efforts to make the FAFSA more inclusive of all students, regardless of their parents’ marital status. In order to more accurately and fairly assess a student’s need for aid, the Department announced that beginning with the 2014-2015 FAFSA, it will collect income and other information from both of a dependent student’s legal parents regardless of the parents’ marital status or gender, if those parents live together. To do so, the 2014-2015 FAFSA will provide a new option for dependent applicants to describe their parents’ marital status as “unmarried and both parents living together.” Additionally, where appropriate, the new FAFSA form will also use terms like “Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)” and “Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent)” instead of gender-specific terms like “mother” and “father.” A copy of the new FAFSA form, which will be released on Jan. 1, is attached. The vast majority of FAFSA forms are filed electronically using FAFSA on the Web.

The information provided by students and parents on the FAFSA is used to calculate the student’s expected family contribution (EFC), which determines the student’s eligibility for federal need-based student aid as well as for many state, institutional and private aid programs. It is critical that both of a dependent student’s parents help pay, to the extent they are able, for the educational expenses of their child. Collecting parental information from both of a dependent student’s legal parents will result in fair treatment of all families by eliminating longstanding inequities based on parents’ relationship with each other rather than on their relationship with their child.
Today’s guidance furthers those efforts by providing guidance on how students should apply for federal student aid, since now legally married same-sex couples will be treated as married for all FAFSA and EFC calculation purposes. For the 2014-2015 FAFSA and subsequent years, responses to questions about marital status must be in accordance with the guidance the Department laid out today in a Dear Colleague Letter that was posted to the Department’s Information for Financial Aid Professionals website (

The impact on the 2013-2014 FAFSA – which students used and can continue to use to apply for aid for this school year – depends on whether the student has already submitted a 2013-2014 FAFSA. Students who have not yet submitted a 2013-2014 FAFSA are expected to respond to all questions related to marital status in accordance with the updated guidance. A student who previously submitted a 2013-2014 FAFSA, but who was unable to respond to marital status questions as “married” due to Section 3 of DOMA, may choose to submit a correction. These optional corrections will be permitted since they do not represent a change in marital status, but rather an acknowledgment of the marital status at the time of the initial 2013-2014 FAFSA submission. This choice only applies if the impacted student and/or parent were legally married at the time the FAFSA was initially completed.