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Filing taxes promises to be pretty routine this year. Few changes in the tax law mean most taxpayers will focus on the usual last-minute tactics—deferring income, taking losses and finding deductible expenses.
The exception? If you have a child in high school, college or graduate school looking to receive financial aid, you'll want to pay special attention to recently announced changes in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) program.
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The FAFSA is used by the federal government and colleges to determine how much aid a student receives each year. Last month the government announced that it will start accepting FAFSA applications three months earlier for the 2017-18 academic year. That means students and their families will be able to submit applications as early as Oct. 1, 2016, rather than waiting to Jan. 1, 2017.
The deadline was challenging because applicants and their families either had to scramble to finish their tax returns by Jan. 1 or use estimates that often had to be amended later. As a result of the earlier application start date, families may now use information from the prior year's tax return. (Families still have until June 30 to complete the form, but because most schools award aid on a first-come, first-served basis, it's important to pay attention to the earlier deadline, says Mark Kantrowitz, a student financial aid expert.)
Families submitting FAFSA applications for the 2016-17 school year still have the Jan. 1 opening date, and will use 2015 tax return information to fill out the form. Then they will use the same tax information again for the 2017-18 school year, explains Kal Chany, head of Campus Consultants and author of "How to Pay for College Without Going Broke." That means the tax data you file this year will do double duty in determining the amount of aid a student is eligible to receive.
The federal financial aid formula awards money to students primarily based on their families' current income and savings, not counting retirement savings, the cash value of your home, personal property and life insurance policies. So taking steps to lower your income can help increase your chances of receiving more financial aid.
How can you make this happen?
Here are some other important points to keep in mind about the new FAFSA rules.