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Do parents 'owe' their children a college education?

Daily Ticker

An 18-year-old New Jersey high school student sued her parents for throwing her out of their home and refusing to pay for her private high school or college.

Rachel Canning, who has since moved back home according to her parents' lawyer, asked the court to require her parents to pay the remainder of her high school tuition, living expenses, legal expenses and at least some of her college tuition from a designated college fund.

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A New Jersey Supreme Court judge dismissed her case for private school tuition and living expenses but left the possibility of college payments open. According to her parents' lawyer, Canning and her parents will now attempt to reconcile and settle the issue of college tuition out of court, and that Rachel's return home "is not contingent on any financial and/or other considerations."

In New Jersey, emancipation does not occur at 18 but instead when a young person obtains an "independent status on his or her own," such as getting married, a job, or graduating from college. The question being tried in court is if a person over 18 decides to move out of the house, do parents still have an obligation to support them financially?

The laws forcing parents to pay for college are complicated and vary by state. Some states give courts the power to make parents pay for their child's college education, those states include Alabama, Massachusetts, Missouri, South Carolina and New York to name a few. Other states have court cases that set precedents for forced college payment- New Jersey is one. Courts will consider evidence like parent's income and resources. The child's aptitude, wishes, goals and academic record are also taken into account. Parent's and sibling's highest levels of education can also play a role in a judge's decision.

A majority of states have no court-mandated requirement for college payments.

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"All of this is predicated on divorce law," says Lauren Young, money editor for Reuters. "When people get divorced and when they’re spelling out the future for their children, college is a big topic of conversation. In divorce law you decide who’s going to pay for college and it’s often based on the salaries and incomes of the parents. Here they’re using that law as the springboard for this to say, ‘should parents have to pay for college no matter what?’"

Canning claims that she is on the honor roll and a cheerleader and her parents kicked her out and crushed her dreams of studying biomedical engineering. Her parents say that she voluntarily left the house because she didn't want to follow rules and had been suspended from school.

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"The problem here, and this is why it’s important, is your parental income factors in to your financial aid formula, and if these parents don’t want to help her and they’ve got income then she might not be eligible for financial aid,” says Young. "The bottom line is, talk to your kids about what your plans are and don’t leave them on the hook…tell your kids what you think you can pay for."

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