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Suing Mom and Dad for Tuition: Necessary or Not?

Apr 24, 2014 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

Recently New Jersey high school student Rachel Canning, who is 18, sued her parents for college tuition. She alleged that her parents forced her to leave the house or provide her with financial support. Rachel is asking that her parents pay the tuition for her last semester at a private high school as well as her living expenses and college tuition—as well as her legal fees for bringing the suit against them.

An honor student, Rachel claimed that her parents were emotionally and verbally abusive. The parents claim otherwise—that they were continuously supportive and loving. Rachel wants the court to officially declare that she is unemancipated and that her parents are required to support her financially. Under New Jersey law, a child cannot be considered truly emancipated from his or her family unless that person has “left the scope of his or her parents’ authority.” Once a child is emancipated, parents are not required to support them financially.

The issue is whether Rachel can be considered “outside the scope of her parents’ authority” in this case—and whether it’s true that she was forced to leave her parents’ house rather than leaving voluntarily.

In this case, the judge denied Rachel’s suit for high school and college tuition as well as financial support for costs of living, finding that her allegations of abuse at home were not credible.

This lawsuit had the potential to be precedent-setting. In general, for federal financial aid purposes, parents of dependent children are required to provide their income information to determine how much financial aid the child qualifies for—but there’s no mechanism for forcing them to pay. That means some children are forced to pay for college based on their parents’ income despite the fact that those parents refuse to contribute; this can create a difficult or even impossible situation for some aspiring college students.

If this suit had been successful, it might have been possible for prospective college students in this situation to sue their parents for college tuition money—and make it much more difficult for parents to refuse to pay tuition. At present, however, there is very little legal recourse for dependent students whose parents are not willing to pay their tuition.

Students in this situation are often advised to get a campus job or take out loans to cover their expenses. This can be problematic, as often the work requirements can take away from study time—and the student loan burden can be crushing for students who receive no parental support.

In many cases, students are advised to try to persuade their parents to contribute to their education. This can be difficult for many students who face difficult home lives and parents who have intractable objections to paying for college tuition. But as there is little in the law that can force a parent to pay for a child’s education, children who find themselves without parental support are left to rely on their own persuasive ability as well as work and student loans.

In this case, Rachel’s wish is to stay dependent—and require her parents to pay her tuition. Ultimately, however, it may be in her best interest to be declared an independent so that her parents’ income is not counted toward her financial aid qualification—if the parents refuse to pay tuition. However, this is not easy to do. The requirements for true independent student status are stringent, and students who are officially declared “emancipated” can still be counted as dependent students for financial aid purposes.

In this instance, the judge did specify that the parents had to keep Rachel on their health insurance policy—and keep all traditional or accredited online college savings accounts set up for her intact. Another hearing will occur to determine whether the parents will be required to pay their daughter’s college tuition, so the specific issue of college tuition in this case has yet to be determined. But it’s likely this phase of the trial will generate plenty of media attention—possibly nationwide.

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