Such varying policies can lead to vastly different aid packages from the schools you apply to. As a result, it's important to ask financial aid officers ahead of time whose income and assets will count. That will give you a good sense up front about which school is likely to offer the most generous aid. And there's always a chance that you can persuade an aid officer to, say, replace your stepfather's income with your father's or vice versa, if you can make a case that such a change is appropriate.
Sometimes you can use the most favorable package to get a competing school to change its tune about whose finances count. In the end, you have to apply by the rules, be ready to appeal, and hope for the best.
Financial aid for transfer students is not all that different from financial aid for freshmen. Your aid package from your previous school won't transfer; you'll have to apply again at your new school. You'll fill out the same aid forms that entering freshmen do, though the deadlines will be different if you transfer in midyear. (They may even be different for fall transfers; be sure to check.)
Before awarding aid, your new school will check the National Student Loan Data System to find your "financial aid transcript," which shows how much aid you've received from other schools. That prevents a school from awarding you a loan that exceeds federal borrowing limits, for instance.
If you're transferring midyear, you may not be eligible for some grants that you might have received as a fall transfer. When grant money is limited, schools often award it on a first-come, first-served basis. By midyear, the well may be dry.
Be sure to ask or check the school's website for scholarships for which you might qualify. At some schools, you'll be a candidate for the same scholarships as freshmen; at others, there are separate scholarships for standout transfers. At Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois, for instance, transfer students with a GPA of 3.5 earn a $4,000 scholarship and may be eligible for an additional $2,000 for talent in music, theater, art, or debate. At Roanoke College in Virginia, a 3.5 GPA earns a $9,000 scholarship (and an additional $3,000 if you're transferring with an associate's degree from a Virginia community college).
If you know ahead of time that you'll eventually apply to transfer to another school, you can save yourself money and time by being careful to select courses that will earn you full credit at the second school. Most colleges are happy to consult with potential transfers on this; contact the office of admissions.
Financial aid isn't just for 18- to 21-year-olds. Whether you've postponed college for a few years or a few decades, most of the same financial aid resources that traditional students rely on are available to you. Assuming you're age 24 or older, you'll be considered an independent student for financial aid purposes, so only your income and assets (and your spouse's, if you're married) will count in the financial aid formulas. Your parents are out of the picture.