A Legal Right to Have Your Parents Pay for College?

On behalf of The Marks Law Firm, L.L.C. posted in Divorce, Child Custody and Child Support on Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Consider the following scenario.  A bright and capable senior in a private high school has a falling out with her parents when she turns 18.  No longer wanting to live by her parents’ rules, she leaves home and takes residence with the family of a friend.  Though she has broken ties with her parents and chosen to live “on her own,” she demands that her parents pay for her college education, and with the backing of the family with whom she now lives, she files a lawsuit to receive the funds for that college education.

Does the hypothetical seem ridiculous?  Something we just made up?  Actually, it is the fact pattern to a recently filed lawsuit by Rachel Canning in a New Jersey circuit court.

The issue in the case focuses on the term “emancipation,” which normally occurs when a child turns 18.  Generally, once a child becomes emancipated, a parent no longer has a legal obligation to care for that child, as the child is now considered a self-sufficient adult.  In New Jersey, emancipation may extend past the age of 18 under limited circumstances where the child still remains under the sphere of influence of the parents.  It appears, however, that trying to extend this doctrine of emancipation outside of the context of parents under a court order of custody or support is novel and rare, and some may say, ludicrous.

Most states, including Missouri, will require parents of children who become emancipated through an incident of abuse or neglect to continue to support these children – but that obligation follows from the same legal theory that requires parents under an order of custody or support to continue that support until the age of 21 given certain conditions.  Extending that obligation to parents not under any court order of support is a novel idea, but does point to a strange inequity in the law.

If we had changed our initial scenario by adding one new fact – that mom and dad were divorced – the entire scenario moves from silly to sublime.  In Missouri, our support statutes relating to children under an order of custody (either through divorce or paternity action) explicitly state that support continues until the child turns 21 if that child pursues full time higher education (or part time if also working at least 15 hours per week or if laboring under a physical or mental disability).  Further, our courts have implicitly held that attending college would qualify as an extraordinary expense that parents have some obligation to pay.  So, currently, parents who divorce generally find themselves having to support their children’s pursuit of higher education – while their married neighbors have no such legal duty.

Is it fair that divorced parents should have to pay for college when married parents do not have to pay?  That issue, rather than the one our New Jersey high school litigant raises about emancipation, seems the more interesting to resolve.  It does seem that the Equal Protection Clause, which frowns upon treating similarly situated persons differently because of a particular trait (like race or gender), would see a problem with treating two families of equal financial status different regarding payment of college only because in one family the parents are divorced.  Perhaps the New Jersey litigation is the beginning of the foray into redressing this issue.

If you have questions about emancipation and support, contact our St. Louis family law attorneys – we can help.