You Can’t Always Get What You Want — Or Can You? have all read the headlines and gossip magazines about child celebrities suing their parents for the millions of dollars they claim their parents squandered of the child’s earnings.  But what if the child suing their parent is not a talented celebrity and not worth millions themselves?

Recently, a New Jersey Superior Court judge was faced with the dilemma of deciding whether an 18 year-old high school Senior, Rachel Canning, is entitled to monetary support including payments due for her private high school tuition and the expenses incurred due to Ms. Canning’s living with a friend, as well as potential college tuition next year, from her estranged parents.  According to the parents, the teen left their home voluntarily and moved in with a girlfriend after refusing to obey the “rules” of their home, which included such restrictions as a curfew, underage drinking, and their wish that she break up with a boy they deemed to be “trouble.” However, the teenager has a different story. Rachel claims that she was forced from the home after enduring “abuse” that purportedly contributed to her eating disorder that developed as her parents pushed her to obtain a basketball scholarship (reportedly worth $20,000). The judge denied her emergency request for monthly support, past-due private high school tuition, and attorney fees at the present time, but he will revisit the issues of this case, if necessary, later this year. For now, the teenager will remain on her parents’ health insurance and the college fund set aside for her, by her parents, will remain unchanged.

While we don’t have the answers for this tumultuous family, this case has our attention because this time it is not a celebrity child whose own money is at issue, but a child who has sued for money her parents earned to which she believes she is entitled, raising two key questions: (1) What are a child’s rights while living in their parents’ home; and (2) What does the law say about the parental obligations to support their child after the age of majority?

As we all know, children do not have all of the same constitutional rights as adults. Sure, children are afforded the right of due process and the right to counsel, but they lack the physical and emotional maturity to automatically be considered at the same level as adults under the U.S. Constitution.  Most states have a tiered system to assess the age of majority and levels of reasoning, because usually an 8 year-old and a 15 year-old child are not on the same spectrum of maturity. So what happens when a kid doesn’t want to live by their parents’ rules? Tough it out until he or she turns 18 years old, or seek legal emancipation. However, Rachel Canning wants the best of both worlds. According to her attorney she claims to be unemancipated and therefore still entitled to parental support. Her parents claim that she voluntarily left the home and is no longer within their control so should be considered emancipated.

If the court sides with Rachel, the issue will center on the constitutional rights of her parents. The 14th Amendment covers numerous freedoms, including the right to direct the education and upbringing of your children. Over the years, courts have been reluctant to infringe upon those parental constitutional rights without first determining whether the burden being imposed upon those rights – i.e. parents being forced to pay for rent and tuition when their child defiantly leaves their home because they don’t like the rules – is justified by a compelling interest.  In other words, a state cannot infringe upon the fundamental rights of parents simply because a better decision could have been made. And, if the law unreasonably interferes with the liberty of the parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children under their control, it may be deemed unconstitutional.  However, these general rules tend to be less clear or certain when the parents are in the midst of a divorce. Under those circumstances the courts will set guidelines for how much each parent must pay in support of their children living in their custody, including private elementary and high school tuition and sometimes college tuition, so long as certain criteria are met.

So what does this New Jersey case mean for rebellious teens and fed-up parents across the nation? That all depends on whether Rachel’s attorneys are able to prove that she is entitled to anything after she left home. Usually, there must be some special circumstances proven, such as abuse or neglect, to justify the court’s decision to usurp the parents’ independent authority.  So unless the New Jersey court finds evidence that substantiates the teenager’s allegations of abuse and/or neglect, the court is not likely to step on her parents’ toes.

However, the issue of future college tuition may be unrelated to the realm of abuse or neglect. Like most college-bound teenagers, they are faced with figuring out how to pay for college.  Since Mr. and Mrs. Canning did maintain a college fund for Rachel’s future, the presumption is that she has three options available for tuition, assuming she is not awarded a full scholarship for some reason: student loans, her “college fund”, and/or to pay for it herself. The judge indicated that a final decision on the issue of her parents’ college fund would come after the deadline to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). As most know, in order to qualify for federal and most private educational loans, both the parents and the child must submit their FAFSA to determine the extent, if any, of financial aid to which the child may be entitled.  The amount of financial aid offered to the unemancipated child is largely based on the income of his or her parents. If the parents refuse to submit a FAFSA, the child cannot secure any financial aid until they are legally emancipated. One “public service” website explains that teens who suspect their parents may have refused to submit a FAFSA because they have not filed income taxes returns should actually report their parents to the IRS and collect a reward. This stellar advice also instructs, “If your parents are sufficiently wealthy, the reward could pay for your education!”  As if Ms. Canning’s suit against her parents wasn’t already sufficiently harmful to the family dynamic…

If Ms. Canning does not qualify for federal or private student loans, she will almost certainly return to court over this issue, since her college dreams will depend on either her own payment of tuition (which she likely cannot make) or payment from the “college fund” that her parents’ established, to which  she believes she is entitled. Hopefully this case will not result in a new standard for parenting which would allow teenagers unbridled access to money their parents have saved over the years no matter what title they may give the account.

#emancipated minor   #parental rights  #college fund  #constitutional rights

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