father daughter dispute conflictLast week we saw a flurry of news reports regarding Rachel Canning’s lawsuit against her parents for child support and school tuition. Much of the media focus has been on Rachel’s “bad girl behavior,” rather than the legal framework or claims in the case.

While details are scant, what we do know right now is that on March 4, 2014, Judge Peter Bogaard decided there was no exigent circumstance (emergency) that would require the immediate payment of financial support or high school tuition.

It looks like the court denied Rachel’s request for tuition because Rachel’s high school promised to cover the cost of her final semester. The judge also found no basis to order emergency financial support. This could be because Rachel’s basic needs are currently met – she’s living with her best friend’s parents (who are apparently funding her lawsuit), and she has a job and therefore, some independent income.

Judge Bogaard ordered Rachel and her parents to return on April 22, 2014 for a full hearing, which will likely include witness testimony and documentary evidence. At that hearing, the judge will decide the major issues in this case – whether Rachel’s parents must provide some financial support and/or pay her college tuition.

In most states, this type of lawsuit would not get very far because children are generally considered emancipated (independent from their parents) when they turn 18 and/or or finish high school. Once emancipated, a child is no longer legally entitled to his or her parents’ financial support. New Jersey is among a minority of states where age does not automatically confer an emancipated status.

Again, details of the legal claims in the case are few, but it seems safe to assume some portion of this legal battle will focus on whether or not Rachel is emancipated.

How Courts Decide if a Child Is Emancipated

New Jersey courts do consider a child’s age in determining emancipation, but age is certainly not the only factor that comes into play. Although there’s a presumption that a child becomes emancipated at the age of 18, this presumption can be rebutted (overcome) by showing that the child has not reached a truly independent status. (The query is different for deciding whether a child under 18 is emancipated).

Under a long line of New Jersey cases, courts in the Garden State will consider several factors when deciding whether an 18-year old is emancipated, including:

  • the child’s needs
  • the child’s interests
  • the child’s independent resources
  • the family’s reasonable expectations
  • the parents’ and the child’s financial abilities, and
  • any other factor the court believes is relevant to the decision.

(See Dolce v. Dolce, 383 N.J. 11, 18 (2007), citing Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982).) 

Covering College Tuition

If Judge Bogaard decides Rachel is emancipated, her parents’ duty to provide support ends. If not, the next decisions will focus on an amount for support and college tuition.

In New Jersey, there’s a strong trend towards requiring parents, if they are financially capable, to pay for college expenses. When making this decision, a judge will take several factors into account, including:

  • the reasonableness of the expectation for higher education
  • the amount sought by the child for the cost of the higher education
  • the parent’s ability to pay that cost
  • the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child
  • both parents’ financial resources
  • the child’s commitment to, and aptitude for, the requested education
  • the child’s financial resources, including assets held individually or in custodianship or trust
  • the child’s ability to earn income during the school year or on vacation
  • the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants
  • the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection, shared goals, and  responsiveness to parental advice and guidance, and
  • the relationship of the education sought to any prior training and to the child’s long-term goals.

In this case, the media has focused primarily on Rachel’s relationship to her parents and her responsiveness (or unresponsiveness) to their parental advice. While this is certainly an important factor, it’s only one of many the court may consider on April 22.

It’s impossible to read the tea leaves, and the judge seems to take issue with both sides. He’s been quoted as having admonished Rachel for her unruly behavior and her parents for how they handled the situation. NPR reports that the judge told the Cannings they “should have tried to get help for their daughter instead of cutting her off.”

So, despite reports implying Rachel lost her case, the major issues have yet to be determined. The April 22 hearing will be the one to watch in terms of understanding more about both sides’ legal claims and any precedent-setting outcomes from the New Jersey court.

See DivorceNet.com’s section on Child Support for more information about child support laws in your state.