Another New Jersey Child Sues Parents for College Tuition; Lawmaker Seeks to Prevent Future Cases

tuition-lawsuitNew Jersey once again is grappling with the issue of how far parents’ financial obligations toward their children should go, particularly in relation to paying for their higher education. At least one State lawmaker is looking at ways to keep such decisions within the family and out of the courtroom.

In a legal battle that began last year, Caitlyn Ricci, a 21-year-old New Jersey resident, filed a lawsuit against Maura McGarvey and Michael Ricci, her divorced parents, seeking to force them to pay for her college tuition. Last month, a judge ruled in her favor citing a 1982 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that made divorced parents financially responsible for the college education of their children.(1)

Ms. Ricci’s case was originally filed in 2013 soon after she left her mother’s home and moved in with her paternal grandparents. At that time, Ms. Ricci’s parents were ordered to pay their daughter’s tuition at Gloucester County College, a public State school, provided Ms. Ricci applied for available scholarships and loans to help defray the costs. According to reports, the parents did not pay the tuition because their daughter did not meet her court-ordered obligations. This past summer, Ms. Ricci transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, and returned to court asking that her parents be forced to pay her tuition, which now amounts to $26,000 a year.(1)

In hearing the case, the judge referred to Newburgh v Arrigo, the 1982 State Supreme Court case that decided divorced parents are responsible for providing college educations for their children, and ordered Ms. Ricci’s parents to pay $16,000 of her Temple University tuition bill.(1)

This case is reminiscent of another case that made headlines earlier this year involving a then high school student, Rachel Canning, who went to court seeking emancipation and support from her estranged parents. That support was to include the continued payment of her private high school tuition costs, as well as payment of her future college tuition. That case eventually was dropped and Ms. Canning returned home to her parents’ house before moving to college this past fall.(2)

One major difference between the Canning case and the Ricci case is that Ms. Canning’s parents’ marriage was intact. Usually courts will recognize the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, and the courts’ ability to intervene in such family decisions is limited. In the case of divorced parents, however, the courts are more likely to intervene in an effort to minimize the risks of children being neglected or abused by parents preoccupied with divorce proceedings.(2)

Ms. Ricci’s parents, however, have been divorced since she was a toddler and since that time reportedly have made joint decisions about her upbringing including her education. Those decisions included their agreement to pay for a less costly, in-state college education as long as Ms. Ricci lived at home and followed certain family regulations.(3)

According to news reports, Ms. Ricci has had no contact with either of her parents other than court appearances for two years. What led to the rift is debatable: her parents claim she moved out after they cracked down on their rules, while her grandparents say she was thrown out of her mother’s home.(3)

Republican Assemblyman Chris J. Brown, representative of the 8th Legislative District, wants to prevent any parent, married or divorced, from facing a similar case by proposing legislation that would prohibit adult children from filing lawsuits against their parents for college expenses. The Assemblyman expressed concern that the court’s decision would set a legal precedent that could leave parents facing penalties for not paying expensive education costs they could not afford. He is currently working with the Office of Legislative Services to draft a bill that would allow divorced parents to come up with a mutually-agreed-upon plan for their children’s secondary education so that the courts could be left out of such decisions.(4)

In the meantime Ms. Ricci’s parents have expressed plans to appeal the court’s decision and are refusing to pay their daughter’s tuition until she reestablishes a relationship with them.(3)

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