Many factors come into play when determining financial aid for any family. Key to the financial health of the divorced or separated parent with a college or college-bound student is the designation of “custodial” parent. This is the parent who will receive the financial aid package and the student’s bill.

One of financial aid’s best kept secrets is the opportunity that arises when parents are separated or divorced and there is a substantial difference on their balance sheets. When completing financial aid applications, only the designated custodial parent’s income and assets must be listed. Thus, the designation of custodial parent ultimately determines financial aid eligibility.

Any family can legally take advantage of this situation, but first parents must fully understand who the custodial parent is or isn’t and why. During the high school and college years, many are surprised to learn that this designation is not necessarily the same as stipulated by the court in the divorce hearing.

The Custodial Parent

During the high school years, the custodial parent is the one with whom the student spent more than half their time over the previous twelve months.

During the college years, if the student lives on or off campus, either parent can qualify as custodial parent as long as the student is able to substantiate residency at that parent’s address. This can be accomplished with proof that their mail is received there, and a phone in their name is also recommended.

If the student commutes to college and both parents live within driving distance, then either parent can be the custodial parent.

The “Unambiguous” Non-custodial Parent

The non-custodial parent is the one not meeting the above criteria. During high school, the parent living outside the boundaries of the school district is the unambiguous non-custodial parent. However, after graduation, the student could relocate, thereby giving custodial status to this parent.

If the student commutes while attending college, then the unambiguous non-custodial parent is that parent who lives too far from campus for the student to travel from.

The “Ambiguous” Non-custodial Parent Strategy™

Either parent can be the ambiguous non-custodial parent during high school given that both live in the same school district if the student attends a public school, or when both parents live within driving distance of a private school. Either parent can be the ambiguous non-custodial parent if the student attends a boarding school.

During college, if the student lives on or off campus, then either parent can be the ambiguous non-custodial parent as long as the student can substantiate residency as previously described. If the student commutes to college and both parents live within driving distance, then either parent can be designated the ambiguous non-custodial parent.

The Ambiguous Non-custodial Parent Strategy™ comes into play when one parent’s income and assets far exceed the other’s, as the less affluent parent would have a much greater financial need and therefore qualify for more financial aid. Separated or divorced parents who share the same address defeat this strategy making it near impossible to work!

Author's Bio: 

Reecy Aresty has been a financial advisor since 1977. He has authored, How To Pay For College Without Going Broke, an invaluable, critically acclaimed parent/student manual. Arguably the most revealing book ever written on college admissions & financial aid, it is the only book of its kind also available in Spanish. In a career spanning almost three decades, Reecy has helped thousands of students get admitted to the schools of their choice, and helped parents provide a college education for less than they ever imagined possible.

Reecy has been interviewed by financial experts on radio and television, and by many of the nation's most respected publications including Money Magazine, US News & World Report, Bloomberg News, Scripps Howard, The Washington Post, Terry Savage (personal finance columnist for the Chicago Sun Times), Consumers Digest and AOL.

Recently, Reecy created The College Information Network™ including The High School Blog, The College Blog, Payless For College and The Way To College dot coms. A Google search for “Reecy Aresty” will result in thousands of links to sites all over the world that feature his articles, advice and methods. He presents free seminars coast to coast, and his innovative appeal/negotiating techniques have turned unappealing award letters into millions of dollars of additional financial aid.

Reecy's book is a warehouse of information that makes it possible for virtually any family to beat the colleges and the federal government at their own game. For further information contact Reecy Aresty at:, 561.477.9639, or visit