NJ teen loses first legal battle to make parents pay for education

New Jersey student Rachel Canning attends a hearing in her lawsuit against her parents Sean and Elizabeth Canning, in Morristown on  March 4, 2014. Credit: Reuters
New Jersey student Rachel Canning attends a hearing in her lawsuit against her parents, Sean and Elizabeth Canning, in Morristown on March 4. Credit: Reuters

A New Jersey student who says her parents abandoned her when she turned 18 lost a first round on Tuesday in the lawsuit she filed against them for school costs and living expenses, a case that could set a precedent for a family’s obligation to support a child who has left home.

A family court judge denied a request by Rachel Canning of Lincoln Park, N.J., to have her parents temporarily resume paying her tuition and living expenses. He set another hearing date for next month.

Canning, 18, wants her parents to pay the remaining $5,000 in tuition owed to Morris Catholic High School, where she is a senior, and she wants access to a college fund that was set up for her.

The cheerleader and lacrosse player claims her parents kicked her out of the house in November 2013 after she turned 18, the age of legal adulthood. She wound up living with a friend’s family, she said, and the upheaval has jeopardized her educational future.

Judge Peter Bogaard rejected her request for a temporary payout of about $600 a month in support as well as tuition for her private high school, which has waived fees while the case is settled.

In court, the teen said her parents remain obligated to help her with food, transportation, high school tuition and her college education.

She filed the lawsuit last week claiming that she is still dependent on them for support because she is still in school and not yet legally emancipated under state law.

“They left her high and dry because they didn’t want to pay,” attorney Tanya Helfand told the court. “Now, at the age of 18, is not the point to do this.”

Her parents, Sean and Elizabeth Canning, said their daughter left home voluntarily, telling the court that she had severe behavioral problems, including underage drinking, and had been suspended from school.

In court papers, they said she did not want to follow the rules of the house that included doing chores and abiding by a curfew.

In New Jersey, emancipation is not contingent on becoming a legal adult at age 18 but instead requires a young person to obtain “an independent status on his or her own” — such as graduation from college, obtainment of employment or marriage.

Family law experts in New Jersey say Canning’s case might set legal parameters on whether non-divorced parents in the state are obligated to pay for their children’s college education and provide other financial support after the child has left home.

New Jersey is one of several states that require divorced parents to pay for their children’s education through college, or legal emancipation, said William Laufer, a family law expert. So far, there is no parallel decision for intact families.

“This case is certainly unique,” Laufer said. “The question is, a kid at the age of 18 says he or she is moving out of the house — do parents have a legal obligation to support their kids until emancipation?”

An attorney for Canning’s parents said in court that she was welcome to return home and under the financial care of her parents, should she abide by house rules.

“She can come home tonight. There is no abuse. There is no neglect,” attorney Laurie Rush-Masuret said.

Sean Canning, a former police chief in Lincoln Park, told local television station WCBS-TV on Monday he was “dumbfounded” that he was being sued by one of his three daughters.

He called Rachel “rebellious” and said her college fund was not in jeopardy.

“We have a college that’s available to her — there’s no doubt about that. But it’s the equivalent … of going shopping at a high-end store and sending somebody the bill,” he told the station.



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