Is the College Tuition Demand by NJ Teen Baseless?


J. Rochelle Cavanagh, Esq., Contributing Author

Recently, New Jersey teenager Rachel Canning made national news when she sued her parents for financial support, including but not limited to her college tuition. I personally first saw the story on a popular morning news show. As a New York family law attorney, the story itself did not surprise me in the least. What did surprise me was the response of the show’s news anchors to the story.

Editorializing comments from the anchors ranged from dismay about how litigious a society we live in to the audacity of a child to demand college tuition as though it were a legally enforceable right. Amazingly, however, in New York (and several other states), college expenses are just that.

New York is one of the few states that requires child support until the age of 21. As the vast majority of children graduate from high school at 17 or 18, this means a parent must continue to support a child for another three or four years after high school.

The New York Legislature includes “educational expenses” as part of child support, and thereby, courts in New York have universally interpreted this to mean additional money for college. Many litigants are shocked to hear that they can be forced to pay for their child’s higher education.

Perhaps the more incredible part is that, because educational expenses are an “add on” for child support (meaning it is not included in the regular support payments), a court can order a litigant to continue paying child support at the agreed amount, but then order them to pay an additional amount on top of that for the educational expenses.

For a parent with an unexceptional income and a private-college bound child, not only can this can be financially crippling, it also creates inequitable results. As child support is payment for basic needs of a child, such as food, transportation and activities, a custodial parent can continue to collect basic support for expenses they are not incurring if the child is living away at college.

And while courts are able to reduce the basic child support payment when a parent contributes to college expenses, there is no guarantee this will happen.

The issue also raises other, broader questions about the “right” to a funded college education. In New York State, approximately 33 percent of the citizens are college educated, and nationally, the figure shrinks to 28.5 percent. This begs the question as to whether or not access to a fully-funded college education from your parents is a right equal to health insurance coverage, food or shelter.

Taking these questions a step further, what does this mean for children of parents who are not divorced? Do they also have the same right to a fully-funded college education as children of divorced parents?

If the courts and the legislature have determined that a paid college education is such a fundamental right as to be included in a support payment for divorced parents, then how is it so unbelievable that a child of married parents would ask for that same right?

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