Negotiating aid with a non-nuclear family

What do students from separated or blended families do when applying for financial aid?

Trista Levere, ArtSci ’08, didn’t encounter complications applying for financial aid using her mother and step-father’s incomes.
Trista Levere, ArtSci ’08, didn’t encounter complications applying for financial aid using her mother and step-father’s incomes.

The process of applying for financial aid can sometimes be arduous, but for students whose parents are divorced or separated, or who come from blended family situations, it can become even more complicated and confusing, said Teresa Alm, associate university registrar (awards).

When assessing a student’s family’s financial ability to contribute to the cost of university, the government looks solely at the income of a student’s legal guardian or guardians.

Alm said when the government looks at divorced family situations it determines the expected parental
contribution based on who has legal custody of the child. She added that in many cases, this is just one parent. If the non-custodial parent is paying child support, Alm said, the money is factored into the income of the parent with custody. “If it’s a situation where it’s a 50-50 joint custody of the child,
then both parents are listing their income,” she said. If it’s not clear who has legal custody, Alm said, the government looks at the income for the parent or guardian who receives child tax benefit.

Alm said even if a student identifies one parent as his or her primary guardian although the parent is not legally so, it is the government’s legal definition of guardian—whomever is awarded custody during court proceedings—which OSAP uses to calculate possible financial aid. “It’s not so much the student choosing, it’s whether or not the government says this falls within our parameters,” she said.
The situation can also be complicated when step-parents enter into the situation. “In situations where the parents have re-married, the government does expect that a step-parent’s income will be provided when a student applies for OSAP,” she said, noting that there are certain exceptions.

“[Did] the parent [re-marry] when the student was in third year of university, or did the parent
re-marry when the child was in grade three?” she asked. “What happens if the divorce occurs during the school year?” Alm said there is a clear definition of when OSAP would consider an appeal process to determine which parents’ income would be considered.

“There would be options for review on the expected step-parents contribution,” she said.

Alm said Queen’s bursary assistance uses the same assessment criteria as OSAP as part of the
calculations they consider in their bursary review. “Certainly with our assessment of bursaries we have some flexibility to review extenuating circumstances, which may or may not have been permitted with the OSAP,” she said. “Students may appeal [by] giving us additional information regarding the family situation that might impact their finances.

“This gives us an opportunity for students to provide additional information to review on a case-bycase
basis.” Because family situations are often changing on an ongoing basis, Alm said financial aid cases
are reviewed when necessary. Alm said given the complexities of circumstances involving family
finances, students are encouraged to meet with a member of the student awards office to discuss their financial options. Trista Levere, ArtSci ’08, comes from a blended family, but said she didn’t face any complications when applying for financial aid. “It was never an issue,” she said. “The only difference is that when you’re putting in your parents’ financial information, you check ‘step-father.’”
She said her situation was easier because her biological father didn’t factor into the situation.

“I have no contact with my real father … he’s never played a role,” she said, adding that he doesn’t pay child support. “Maybe it would be more difficult for people in my situation … [if] their real father was supporting them,” she said. She said because blended families are more common now than in the past, they don’t pose much of a problem in financial aid situations.

“Things like OSAP and bursaries and banks are so used to dealing with blended families that they can
accommodate it.”

—With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

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