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Parent Trap: Teen Sues Parents for College Tuition

Parent Trap: Teen Sues Parents for College Tuition

The case of the New Jersey teen who is suing her parents to force them to pay her college tuition has drawn international headlines.

Many have dismissed it as just the latest example of an entitled teenager throwing a temper tantrum – this time via the court system – to get her parents to bankroll her life regardless of her actions. The nuances of New Jersey law, however, make the case less cut and dry than it appears. Beyond the legalities, it has many talking about the moral and ethical obligations parents have (or don’t have) when it comes to paying for their children’s college education.

On Wednesday, a judge threw out the first half of the suit filed by Rachel Canning, 18, in which she wanted her parents to pay for her last semester of private school and to provide child support while she’s living with a friend’s parents in a neighboring town. Canning claims she was kicked out of her parents’ home in Lincoln Park, N.J., after her 18th birthday last November (they claim she left voluntarily) after refusing to stop seeing her boyfriend and abide by other house rules. Canning, an honor student and cheerleader at Morris Catholic High School, says she’s unable to support herself financially.

Related: Why Parents Say ‘No’ to Paying for College

Under New Jersey law, children are considered emancipated at age 18 – but the presumption is rebuttable, and previous case law has required parents to continue footing their children’s bills as long as the children remain under their “sphere of influence” or are incapable of living on their own. (Severely disabled children, for example, are never emancipated.)

About a third of states have similar laws on the books, requiring parents to provide some financial support for their children after their 18th birthday. But that law has generally always applied to divorced parents or families in which custody is otherwise an issue, such as when a grandparent has raised the child. In general, courts have been hesitant to step in where the parents remain married and are in agreement on a course of action.

“This may be the first case in New Jersey – and possibly the first case in the nation – where you have an intact family and the parents are saying, ‘I don’t want to pay for college’ and the judge could say ‘You have to,’” says Andrew Economos, a family law attorney in Monroe Township, N.J.

In cases of divorced parents, judges will consider the parents’ financial ability to pay for college expenses and require them to pay a certain amount after a student has exhausted student loans and other means of attaining college funds. Out-of-state tuition at the University of Delaware – Canning’s top choice – will be about $30,000 next year.

If the Cannings are able to cover all of that, they’d be doing a lot better than most families. Last year, parents paid an average of 27 percent of their children’s college expenses from their income and savings, for an average of $5,700, according to Sallie Mae. That was down from a peak of 37 percent in 2010.

Some argue that parents have no obligation to fund their children’s college costs, and financial planners have long maintained that if paying for a child’s higher education would put the parents’ current or future financial health at risk (which does not appear to be the case for the Canning family), it would be irresponsible to do so.

Still, more than 60 percent of young adults (ages 19 to 22) receive some financial help from their parents, with 35 percent receiving tuition assistance, according to a 2012 study from of the University of Michigan. Parents with the means to cover college expenses often believe that denying their children access to the best (and priciest) schools could hurt their career prospects in a hyper-competitive job market.

In this case, Canning’s parents have reportedly already established a college fund in her name, so it’s not a question of having adequate funds. “Not only can her parents afford it, but the money is already sitting off to the side,” says Michael Boulette, a family law attorney in Minneapolis. “The question is whether she can tap into it, when she has essentially told her parents she wants nothing to do with them.”

Related: When Parents Pay for College, Kids’ Grades Could Suffer

Setting aside ethical and legal obligations, parents who do want to pay for their children’s college education should establish the limits of such benefits early on by discussing their expectations with their child. Such agreements might allow families to avoid ending up in a similar situation to the Cannings’.

“Parents should say to the child, ‘We have put aside money for your college education, but if we don’t see you applying yourself assiduously, then we’re not going to underwrite this endeavor unless we think it’s a worthwhile investment,’” says Brad Sachs, a Columbia, Md., family psychologist and author of Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-Reliance. “The key is framing it as an investment, rather than as an obligation.”

Parents who bankroll their children’s expenses without such discussions are doing their children a disservice, Sachs says. Such children may enter adulthood with a limited sense of how to manage finances, or be ill-equipped to make financial decisions on their own.

Kids with a financial stake in their own education also may fare better in school. While students whose parents pay for school are more likely to attend and graduate, their GPA is negatively impacted by how much their parents spend on college, according to a study last year in the American Sociological Review. As parental aid increases, every income group sees a reduction in GPA, with the curve steepest among the most privileged students.

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