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Are You Prepared to Face the FAFSA?

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As the parents of a high school senior you have probably seen your child busy with college admission requirements. By now the applications should be completed and submitted, tests should be taken or scheduled, and the search for scholarships should be well under way. Next up is taking a serious look at the financial end of your child's higher education. Regardless of your income, you will need to determine whether or not you can afford to send your child to each individual college.

A big part of this decision will be figuring out the amount of federal and state financial aid your child will be eligible to receive. This is based in large part on your completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). There is more than $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds available each year, but you have to complete the FAFSA first to see if your child can receive any of that money. The forms for the 2014-2015 year will not be available until January, but there are some things you can do now to prepare:

Learn About Eligibility: While most students are eligible for at least some financial aid for college or career school, you can use the Federal Student Aid (FSA) website to learn about the specific eligibility criteria for the federal student aid programs.

Be Aware of Changes: Due to the Supreme Court's ruling which changed the definition of marriage, the FAFSA will now be completed based on the parents' relationship with the student rather than each other. Unmarried parents living together must both provide information, even if the couple is divorced but living together for financial reasons.

Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool: Previously the IRS would mail parents a document if they needed supporting information on prior year taxes. This Tax Return Transcript will now be available as a PDF download.

Get an Early Aid Estimate: If you're not ready to apply for federal student aid, but you'd like to estimate your aid, try the FAFSA4caster. This is an early eligibility estimator that can help you plan ahead when it comes to paying for college, and could help in the decision-making process.

Start Gathering Documentation: Don't wait until the last minute to start gathering your paperwork. Save your last few pay stubs for 2013 and start gathering account numbers for all of your bank accounts. You also have the option to get your FAFSA PIN, or personal identification number, ahead of time. This will be needed to sign your FAFSA electronically.

Find Out Where to Get Help: Unfortunately, many parents find that they need some help in completing the FAFSA. FSA does have many free tools available, and you can always chat with live technical support if needed. FSA will usually publish a downloadable guide to completing the FAFSA so be on the lookout for the 2014-2015 version. You may also want to schedule an appointment with a college financial aid advisor who can help you complete these forms more efficiently and effectively.

Take the Lead in College Financial Aid Planning

Letting your child be in control of applying to colleges and preparing for the college admission process is a good idea to start getting him or her involved in managing life's many challenges. But the financial end can be a little more complicated than what a teenager is accustomed to handling. You may need to become more involved in the college financial aid process and take the lead in getting prepared to complete the FAFSA.