Social media is abuzz with the latest legal case to attract attention: Rachel Canning, 18, of Lincoln Park, New Jersey, is suing her parents for college tuition after she says she was kicked out of their house in October of last year.The Morris Catholic High School honor student and athlete claims her parents threw her out of their Lincoln Park home when she turned 18. Ms. Canning, a cheerleader and lacrosse player who has aspirations to be a biomedical engineer, filed a lawsuit last week in the Family Part of state Superior Court in Morristown that seeks a judge’s declaration that she is non-emancipated and still dependent as a student on her parents for support.
She is currently living with a friend and her friend’s parents are the one’s paying for the lawyers and costs in bringing the suit.
The teen has been accepted to several colleges so far. The University of Vermont, where she has been offered a $20,000 scholarship, is her first choice, according to CBS New York.
However, her parents say they did not abandon her. Rather, they say she voluntarily moved out after refusing to follow their rules. This quote from Sean Canning, her Dad, appeared in the Huffington Post:
“We love our child and miss her. This is terrible. It’s killing me and my wife. We have a child we want home. We’re not draconian and now we’re getting hauled into court,” father Sean Canning told the outlet. “She’s demanding that we pay her bills but she doesn’t want to live at home and she’s saying ‘I don’t want to live under your rules.’ I know Rachel is a) a good kid, b) an incredibly rebellious teen, and she’s getting some terrible information,””
I disagree Dad, I hate to break the news to you. The internet has branded her “spoiled” and a “brat” and a “scourge on her parents.” But let’s look at this as a lawyer would, shall we? And after careful legal analysis my legal conclusion is “Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner!” This case is going to go Rachel’s way.
It is now elementary under New Jersey (and New York) law that a duty is imposed by statute upon a parent to support a child. In addition to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, N.J.S.A. 9:2-4 provides that parents are “equally charged with their [children’s] care, nurture, education and welfare….” This duty has been stated in case law as well. Cohen v. Cohen, 6 N.J.Super. 26, 69 A.2d 752 (App.Div.1949); Grotsky v. Grotsky, 58 N.J. 354, 277 A.2d 535 (1971); Clayton v. Muth, 144 N.J.Super. 491, 366 A.2d 354 (Ch.Div.1976).
But on the other side, in New jersey, as a general rule, a parent is under no duty to contribute to the support of his child after the child has become emancipated. Schluter v. Schluter, 17 N.J.Super. 496, 86 A.2d 300 (Ch.Div.1951). In the case of C v. R., 169 N.J.Super. 168, 404 A.2d 366 (Ch.Div.1979), the court stated:
The duty to support minor children ordinarily ceases upon emancipation by age, marriage, self-sufficiency or upon termination of parental rights. (at 179, 404 A.2d 366)
So why am I predicting Rachel will win – because in law there are always exceptions and exceptions to the above rule were anticipated by the court in Cohen v. Cohen. That case really predicts how this case will be decided in my opinion:
[I]n a family where a college education would seem normal, and where the child shows scholastic aptitude and one or other of the parents is well able financially to pay the expense of such an education, we have no doubt the court could order the payment [of a college education after majority has been attained]. (6 N.J.Super. at 30, 69 A.2d 752)
Two exceptions have been even more clearly carved out after the Cohen case. The first imposes a continuing duty on a parent to care for an adult child suffering from physical or mental deficiencies which pre-existed his attaining majority. The “college education” exception is the second clearly established exception. It has received a great deal more attention, not only in New Jersey but throughout the country. Under this exception a parent may be required to contribute financially to the college education of a child even though the child has reached majority.
Jersey’s highest court in Jonitz v. Jonitz, 25 N.J.Super. 544, 96 A.2d 782 (App.Div.1953), recognized this power, after considering all relevant circumstances, as requiring a parent to provide his child with a college education, after reaching majority. In so holding the court made reference to what was perhaps the earliest reported decision in the country in this area, Middlebury College v. Chandler, 16 Vt. 683 (Sup.Ct.1844). The court in Middlebury found that a college education was not a necessity for which a parent would be required to contribute but pointed out, in effect, as the Jonitz, decision noted,
… the term “necessary” is a relative and flexible one and seemingly contemplated the expansion of educational opportunities to the studious and talented. (25 N.J.Super. at 544, 555, 96 A.2d 782)
This trend of including college expenses in child support proceeded one step further in Khalaf v. Khalaf, 58 N.J. 63, 275 A.2d 132 (1971), where the court held:
The concept of what is a necessary education has changed considerably in recent years. While a “common public school and high school education” may have been sufficient in an earlier time, the trend has been towards greater education. Our courts have recognized this trend by including the expenses of a college education as part of child support where the child shows scholastic aptitude and the parents are well able to afford it. We agree with the cases which include these expenses in child support where appropriate. (internal citations omitted) /blockquote>
Khalaf became the leading case in New Jersey in this area. Then in the early ’70s came Schumm v. Schumm, 122 N.J.Super. 146, 299 A.2d 423 (Ch.Div.1973), in which the child had clearly exhibited scholastic aptitude for attendance at college and made an effort to contribute to his own education and the court ordered the father to pay his tuition even thought the child had reached 18.
The trend in requiring a noncustodial parent to contribute to the college education of his/her children was taken one step further in Ross v. Ross, 167 N.J.Super. 441, 400 A.2d 1233 (Ch.Div.1979). In Ross, the court found that under the circumstances there present the 23-year-old daughter of the parties was not emancipated until such time as her law school training ended. LAW SCHOOL!
The court there also established a threshold question in cases of this nature, which is applicable here:
Had there not been a separation and divorce would the parties, while living together, have sent their daughter to law school and financed that schooling?
Since the answer to that question was likely “Yes” then the parents had to pay. Also, moving out of a house after arguments is not emancipation – Rachel is not working, not supporting herself and like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar is depending “upon the kindness of strangers.” That’s not emancipated. In New Jersey, emancipation of a child “is a fact-sensitive analysis that looks at whether the child has moved beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and has obtained an independent status of his or her own,” as it states in Rachel’s court papers. The mere fact that a child has turned 18 is not an automatic reason to stop financial support. A key court decision in the state specifies that, “A child’s admittance and attendance at college will overcome the rebuttable presumption that a child may be emancipated at age 18.”
Courts in New Jersey have even allowed the “adult” child to choose the school of their choice as long as the tuition is “reasonable.” In New York, by the way, parents are usually responsible for their child “necessaries” until age 21, not just 18.
Sean Canning is a retired Lincoln Park police chief who currently works as Mount Olive’s township administrator, so between his pension and his salary I am sure he can well afford the reduced tuition Rachel is seeking. It is beyond question that in today’s world, a college education is an expected item and a “necessary” item.
Of course, in a perfect world, The Cannings would get some family counseling and resolve their issues in their living room and not in the courtroom. But until then, I think Rachel gets her way.
UPDATE: OK so everyone disagreed with me including my wife – but remember that in this article I am writing from a purely legal analytical point of view – is it morally right for a child to sue her parents? Of course not but is it legal? Yes. The only issue was whether Rachel was emancipated and the judge ruled that she had emancipated herself. Here’s the phone message that likely cost Rachel her case: Phone message left for Liz Canning from Rachel at July 2, 2013 1:18pm, submitted to Morris County Court, which got the judge apparently so angry:
‘Hi mom just to let you know you’re a real f**king winner aren’t you you think you’re so cool and you think you caught me throwing up in the bathroom after eating an egg frittatta, yeah sorry that you have problems now and you need to harp on mine because i didn’t and i actually took a s*** which i really just wanna s*** all over your face right now because it looks like that anyway, anyway i f***ing hate you and um I’ve written you off so don’t talk to me, don’t do anything I’m blocking you from just about everything, have a nice life, bye mom’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2573165/My-mom-called-porky-dad-got-drunk-told-I-just-daughter-Explosive-claims-spoiled-cheerleader-18-suing-parents-support-ran-away.html#ixzz2v38Lf7NW
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