Legal Same Sex Marriages Valid for Federal Student Aid

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The U.S. Department of Education's (DOE) announced December 13 that it will recognize all legal same sex marriages for federal financial aid purposes. DOE cited the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in United States v. Windsor as the impetus for the policy.

DOE said it "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 actually impacts all questions concerning marriage and marital status on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines the financial eligibility for loans and grants to college students.

One offshoot of this policy is the possibility that federal student aid expenditures might increase. When a student changes from a dependent to independent, generally, there are fewer financial resources available and the amount of money the government expects the family to contribute is less. Therefore, in theory, more people will be eligible for greater aid.

But not everyone thinks so.

Mark Kantrowitz, an educational consultant and founder of FindAid, doubts there will be a measurable impact.

"Given that same sex marriage is a relatively new phenomenon, the change is unlikely to have a significant impact one way or the other for many years," he said. "The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 170,000 same-sex marriages in the U.S. out of about 58 million married couples, or about 0.3%. So I doubt there will be a measurable change. But this is certainly an interesting question, especially if you extend it to other areas, such as federal income tax revenue and various federal benefit programs."

"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," according to the DOE.

The DOE deems it "critical" that "both of a dependent student's parents help pay, to the extent they are able, for the educational expenses of their child." So they have made an effort to ensure the collection of all parental information even estranged parents. This they say "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."

By now including same sex marriages, the DOE is eliminating a whole class of the resources of the parents. This will probably reduce the amount of parents' contributions.

Before the Supreme Court ruling, DOE operated according to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibited all federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages. DOMA's Section 3 says 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."

Therefore, a student under 24, married to someone of the opposite sex was considered independent for financial aid purposes. This means that the parents' financial resources were irrelevant and that same student would have been eligible for possibly greater federal subsidies. But a same-sex marriage spouse was not independent.

"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," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a prepared statement. "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."

The DOE said in the release announcing the new policy that students who previously submitted a 2013-2014 FAFSA, "but who were prohibited from responding as 'married' due to Section 3 of DOMA, may choose to submit a correction." These corrections will be permitted, because "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.

--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet

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