A current New Jersey case involving a Morris County high school girl who is suing her parents for support brings to light several questions regarding family law:
• Can and should courts interfere with parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit?
• How far do parents’ financial obligations to their children extend?
• What defines an emancipated youth?
The case in question involves 18-year-old Rachel Canning who moved out of her family home after a disagreement over her parents’ rules and restrictions. Now Rachel is suing her parents for support, including continued payment of her private high school tuition and future college tuition. (1)
Usually when courts are asked to intervene into the rights and obligations of parents, it is in connection with divorce cases. In these situations, there is often the risk of children being neglected or even abused by parents preoccupied with the details of their divorce. Courts step in to ensure the children are provided for adequately. (2) That, however, is not the situation with this current case; the relationship between Ms. Canning’s parents remains intact.
Generally courts recognize the basic rights of parents to raise their children, even 18-year-olds, as they see fit. In exchange for these rights, parents have an obligation to provide support covering the necessities for their children. The courts’ ability to intervene in this relationship is limited in both a practical and legal sense. (1)
Ms. Canning, although 18 years old, is a full-time high school student and, as such, is asking the court to require her parents to provide continued support, including tuition payments. Her parents have rebutted that their daughter emancipated herself by moving out of their home, thus ending their obligations to financially support her as long as she continues living apart from them. On April 22, the court will address the question of whether Ms. Canning is emancipated or entitled to her parents’ continued financial support regardless of her living arrangements. (2)
In New Jersey, there is no legal age for automatic emancipation. Instead, emancipation is a determination made by the courts, and it is usually based on the unique details of individual cases. While New Jersey law considers 18 to be the age of majority, if a child is still in high school or attending college full-time at that age, courts generally will rule in favor of continued parental support. Once again, these situations most frequently apply to children of divorced parents. (3)
Under New Jersey law, courts determine emancipation, in part, on the child’s financial independence. This independence can be attained as a result of employment, marriage or enlistment in the U.S. military. (4) Since Ms. Canning currently attends high school full time and is living with the family of a friend, she would not be considered financially self-sufficient.
Certain circumstances exist under which a child can be considered “constructively emancipated.” Again, this usually occurs in association with divorce. For example, a child who refuses contact with his or her non-custodial parent can be declared constructively emancipated, releasing the non-custodial parent from responsibility for continued child support. The burden of proving constructive emancipation is on the parent.
Another interesting aspect of this case is what expenses should be covered by parents’ financial obligation to their child. Few will argue with the need for parents to provide food, shelter and other necessities. Ms. Canning, however, is seeking payment of her private high school tuition and college tuition. Some could argue that while basic education is a necessity, private school tuition and even college could be deemed luxuries. (1) If the court rules in her favor, particularly where the college tuition is concerned, it would be interesting to see what effect that ruling has on parents throughout the State with college-age children.