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FAFSA Changes May Still Confuse Same-Sex Families

Kelsey Sheehy

Children of same-sex couples can soon include both moms - or both dads - when they apply for federal financial aid.

Starting with the 2014-2015 school year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will ask college students to provide financial information from "Parent 1 (father/mother/stepparent)" and "Parent 2 (father/mother/stepparent)" and allow students to list parents as "unmarried and living together."

Currently the form asks separately, "How much did your father/stepfather earn?" and "How much did your mother/stepmother earn?" and applicants are limited to classifying their parents as married/remarried, single, widowed or divorced or separated.

The new form also applies to children of heterosexual couples who cohabitate, but have not tied the knot. These changes create "an inclusive form that reflects the diversity of American families," Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, said in a statement announcing the changes on April 29.

[Get FAFSA tips for nontraditional students.]

While the changes reflect what the word "family" means for a broader group of students, they don't eliminate financial aid confusion for sons and daughters of same-sex couples.

"This FAFSA change will not be wrinkle-free for same-sex couples," Nancy Polikoff, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, wrote in a recent blog post. Polikoff specializes in lesbian and gay family law.

Same-sex couples can legally marry in 12 states and the District of Columbia, but the Defense of Marriage Act means those marriages are not recognized at the federal level. That in turn means their children will need to check the "unmarried and living together" box despite the parents being legally married.

Changes to the financial aid form could cause financial headaches for affected families, too.

The Department of Education uses income from the student and their legal parents to estimate how much money they can put toward the applicant's education. This figure is known as the expected family contribution, or simply EFC, in financial aid lingo.

If the parents are married, both incomes are counted. If they aren't, only one parent's income is counted on the 2013-2014 version of the FAFSA. Reporting both incomes in same-sex households will up the amount a family is expected to contribute in most cases, reducing the student's eligibility for need-based aid such as Pell Grants , according to the Department of Education.

[Learn how to pay less for your college degree.]

That's a risk these families are willing to take to move closer to equal footing, says Janson Wu, a staff attorney with the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a legal organization based in Boston.

"They're simply asking to be treated the same as all families," he says. "That is what is fair and right."

The Department of Education also needs to clarify how it defines legal parents, pointed out Polikoff, the AU law professor, who wrote the book "Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law."

"I'm guessing the DOE thinks that if a lesbian couple is married or in a civil union or comprehensive domestic partnership, then both are parents. But how about the couple who lives in Virginia, where there is no relationship recognition, but married in DC? Will DOE count them both as parents?" she wrote.

"I mean, really, those of us with deep expertise in this area of law sometimes cannot be sure if someone is a child's legal parent. It's unrealistic to think that individual parents will always know this."

[Find financial aid resources for first-gen students.]

Only 18 states allow second-parent adoptions, which enable one party of a same-sex couple to adopt the partner's child, making them both legal parents. In states such as Iowa, where gay marriage is legal, adoption isn't a guaranteed option, so a student's parents could be legally married, but not legally parents.

That means, despite the FAFSA changes, some students may still have to choose which parent to include on the application, says Wu.

"It is an open and disturbing question that goes beyond the FAFSA form," Wu says. "When [students] live in a state that won't recognize their legal relationship with both their parents, they're put in a very vulnerable position."

Beyond confusion, the process can also take an emotional toll, Wu says.

"Imagine if you're a child who has two lesbian mothers and you have to pick one of them to place on your FAFSA form. What an awful position to have to place a child in."

Still, advocates for the gay and lesbian community say the changes are positive.

"We certainly think it's a step in the right direction," says Brian Moulton, legal director at Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy organization. "When someone's looking at a form that says just 'mother' and 'father,' that on its face does not acknowledge the fact that there are same-sex couples raising children together."

Students such as Jeremy Goldstein, a recent Binghamton University--SUNY graduate with two moms, agrees.

"I think the change is relevant to today's society," Goldstein told the school's student newspaper on May 3. "Especially given the fact that Rhode Island just made same sex marriage legal."

Legislators in Minnesota have since voted to legalize gay marriage as well.

Students and parents can weigh in on the FAFSA changes. The new form is available online, and the Department of Education is soliciting feedback until July 5.

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