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Completing the FAFSA form just got a lot easier

If you have ever filled out the FAFSA form, you can appreciate how complicated it can be.

Millions of American parents have wrestled with this federal financial aid form and many of them have made mistakes. Some of those errors have inadvertently cost lots of families financial aid that they were entitled to receive.

The federal government feels your pain and has been trying to make the form simpler. It is significantly expanding the use of a newly improved tool that should make the FAFSA far simpler for you and millions of other parents.

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What I'm talking about goes by the clunky name of FAFSA-IRS Data Retrieval Process. With this tool, parents will be able to transfer their federal tax information straight from their 2011 tax returns to the FAFSA.

You might not know what figures to provide on the FAFSA, but the IRS does. Without the human guesswork, errors will decline, which should lead to more accurate financial aid awards.

When you can use the tool

The data retrieval tool will be available beginning Feb. 1. When filling out the FAFSA, applicants who have already filed their federal taxes will be directed on the FAFSA website to use the retrieval tool to input their tax data. A click of a button will transfer the FAFSA applicant to the IRS site.

If you end up completing the FAFSA with estimated tax information, you should update the aid application using the retrieval tool after you file your taxes.

Who can use the tool

To be eligible to use the tool you must meet three criteria:

-- You have a Social Security number.
-- You must have filed your 2011 federal tax return.
-- You must not have changed your marital status since Dec. 31, 2011.

If you are still mailing in your federal tax returns, now would be the time to switch to electronic delivery. When you file your returns electronically, your tax figures should be available for FAFSA purposes in one to two weeks. The data, however, won't be available for paper filers for six to eight weeks.

If you'd like more information on this tool, here is a helpful tutorial from California State University, Los Angeles.

FAFSA image courtesy of Flickr user Mindsay Mohan.

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