You may have heard about the hot news story that continues to gain traction nationwide where a New Jersey teen sued her parents in the Morris County Superior Court for financial support, private high school tuition, college payments, and attorney fees. It even made the cover of today’s Star Ledger. She is seeking an official declaration that she is unemancipated and, as a result, her parents are still obligated to support her. The case has largely generated a public outcry, as people question how, based on the facts and circumstances at issue, a court could consider impeding on parents’ rights.
Rachel Canning, eighteen years old and a student at Morris Catholic High School (who has reportedly been admitted to seven different colleges), claims that her parents forced her to leave their home and that, as a result, she is unable to financially support herself. Her allegations are certainly troubling, whether true or not, that her parents verbally abused her, and also threatened to physically do so. Her certification to the court, signed under oath, claimed that she “had to leave to end the abuse,” that her parents stopped paying private high school tuition to punish her, and that they have redirected her college fund.
By contrast, her parents deny the abuse, and claim that Rachel left voluntarily because she did not want to obey their rules, such as being respectful, complying with curfew, and performing some chores around the home. In fact, they are welcoming her back into their home. They further claim that Rachel was suspended from school in October, 2013, shortly before moving out of the home, and, as a result, her parents indicated that she could no longer see her boyfriend (who was also suspended from school), and had lost her car and phone privileges.
When the punishment came down, her father claims that Rachel cut school again and ran away from home. Rachel moved in with relatives of a close friend, and the lawsuit is being funded by a former Morris County Freeholder. Interestingly, while Rachel’s parents have paid for Morris Catholic through the end of last calendar year, the school has indicated that it would not kick her out for unpaid 2014 tuition.
Notably, an investigation undertaken by the Division of Child Placement and Permanency (DCPP), which Rachel claims was initiated by the school, determined that her allegations of emotional abuse were unfounded.
Yesterday, March 4th, the Morris County trial judge, the Honorable Peter Bogaard, J.S.C., denied Rachel’s request for immediate weekly child support, thousands of dollars in attorney fees, and immediate reimbursement of her high school tuition. The judge denied the high school reimbursement request because the school indicated that she could remain for her last semester without payment, and denied the request for immediate financial assistance because there was no emergency posed. The judge did rule that her parents must continue to cover the child on their health insurance policy and maintain the status quo on all existing college savings accounts.
Another hearing is scheduled for April to determine other issues in the suit, including whether Rachel voluntarily left her parents’ home, and whether her parents are required to pay for college. In so ruling, he admonished the child for her disrespectful behavior towards her parents, fault for which Rachel’s attorney attributed to her parents.
The case is newsworthy in asking a trial judge to determine whether parents have a support obligation for this child. It presents one of those very “slippery slope” type situations where, if Rachel’s relief is granted, it could potentially open the door for kids everywhere to sue their parents for financial support. Indeed, Judge Bogaard remarked during yesterday’s oral argument that this could open the door for a twelve year old to sue his parents for an X-Box, or another young child suing her parents for an iPhone, because everyone has an iPhone.
While Rachel’s allegations are concerning, that does not mean she is entitled to that which she seeks from the court. Emancipation requires that a child be beyond the “sphere of parental influence,” but parents also have a fundamental right to parent their children without unnecessary interference. Indeed, Rachel’s parents argue that the person funding her litigation is interfering with that very fundamental premise. We have dealt with that very situation in the past, where a relative or family friend will fund a child’s litigation against parents for various forms of relief.
Further, while divorced parents in New Jersey are required to fund an unemancipated child’s college education, intact parents are not similarly required to do so. Perhaps that is somehow unfair or incongruous, or some sort of equal protection issue, but it is the law. A decision by the trial judge requiring the parents to pay for college, or somehow maintain the already existing college funds for Rachel, will certainly garner attention statewide, if not nationwide, and will undoubtedly lead to ongoing litigation between a child and her parents embroiled in a battle that has long since veered out of control. The litigation is tragic, and hopefully this matter will soon come to an end so that this family can work on getting itself back together and moving on.