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Can You Sue Your Parents for College Tuition?

This article was written by in Education, Family and Life. 17 comments.


This story has all the makings of something viral. It fits right in with our fascination with people doing things that normal Americans wouldn’t even consider doing. We gawk at reality television shows and follow the stories about their stars, like the recent news about the couple from the “Real Housewives of New Jersey” show who recently pleaded guilty to fraud. This story has the added element of millennial-shaming. We like stories when a young individual upholds the generally-held stereotype of entitlement.

If the judge doesn’t throw out the suit from the beginning, some of the facts will eventually come out. But from media reports, it appears that the eighteen-year-old Rachel Canning, identifying herself as a cheerleader and an honor student, willfully left home after not wanting to live by her parents’ rules. These rules included contributing to household order through chores, obeying an eleven o’clock curfew, and breaking up with a boyfriend who didn’t meet the parents’ approval. The girl moved out to live with her friend’s family — and the father in this friend’s household is funding the suit.

The parents, who had been saving some money for their child’s college education, are now refusing to cover the tuition for the expensive college the girl would like to attend and to pay the remaining balance for her enrollment in a private high school.

The story, traveling quickly across the internet, is giving millions of readers the opportunity to ridicule her as a product of the Millennial generation.

I’d like to say that the situation has an obvious eventual conclusion. The child, when she voluntary moved out of her parents’ house after turning eighteen years of age to avoid their rules, signaled that she intended to live without their support. And in fact, she could do just that by switching to public school, getting a job, and if she likes, paying for her own education at a less expensive college. The student, however, is determined to have her parents continue supporting her and her life choices.

The young adult made her own choice and should have to live with the consequences, and those consequences, like forfeiture of support, seemed to be pretty clear from the beginning.

But because this is in New Jersey, the case might have some merit. The courts in this state have ruled in the past that parents are still responsible for supporting their children after the age of eighteen if a child cannot support his or herself. There may not be a reason to think a bright and talented student wouldn’t be able to support herself if she wanted, but working for a living and paying one’s own way through college isn’t as convenient as having living expenses covered by one’s parents. A court will probably have to decide whether the young woman can support herself in the manner to which she’s accustomed. Given that a court in Texas recently that “affluenza” is a reasonable defense, there’s no telling what might happen in court in New Jersey.

Parents have no legal obligation to pay for their children’s higher education expenses. The ability for a child or young adult to receive a college education for free is not a right or entitlement. It’s great when parents can contribute to their children’s education, and I’ve benefited from parental financial assistance for (and after) college. I would never in a million years consider financial support from my parents to be an expectation after the age of eighteen, but I hope to be able to help my children afford the education they want when and if I have children.

But this isn’t charity. When I offer to help pay for college, there will be conditions. The parents involved in this lawsuit are free to require their child to exhibit appropriate behavior in order to receive support, even beyond the age of eighteen. Unless the parents invested the money set aside for college education in the daughter’s name, it would take a court’s decision to force the parents to pay that money. The funds for the private high school education might be different; if the parents signed a contract to pay the tuition, they might have to pay, regardless of the living situation.

A just judge should recognize that the student could easily finish her high school career in a public high school, and private school tuition should be seen as an extra, not a baseline requirement.

What do you think about this story? Does the eighteen-year-old have a case against her parents? Should the parents continue to support her after she refused to live by their rules and voluntarily moved out of the house? What would it have taken for you to sue your parents when you were eighteen?

Update: In the initial hearing the judge did not throw out the case but expressed concern about setting a precedent in which parents would be afraid to set rules of the house. The judge refused an emergency order for the parents to begin paying the teen $600 a week. A hearing on April 22 will determine more.

Published or updated March 4, 2014. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Anneli @thefrugalweds

W-O-W! Jaw-to-the-floor! If I were her parents, I would fight that too – she lost out on her claim to the money supporting her education WHEN she walked out of her parents house.

My parents paid for crazy-expensive private schooling for me and my sisters. And we value it immensely – they didn’t have to – they CHOSE to pay for it to set us up for a good life.

If she’s old enough to walk out on her parents, she’s old enough to take care of her own self – whatever cost that may be!

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avatar Stephonee

I’m pretty torn on this issue. I’d like to do some more reading on the case and the situation, myself. But of course I can see the perspective of the parents – the money they put aside for their daughter for college comes with conditions, and she’s not living up to those conditions, so she’s not entitled to it.

But on the other side of things, it’s not as easy to pay for college as an 18-year-old (in the US) as you would think. The problem arises that unless you are under some EXTREME circumstances (and the ones described above won’t count), the Federal Government will not consider an 18-year-old “independent” when she goes to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (known as the FAFSA). Basically, that paperwork (which determines your eligibility for a Federal Pell Grant and Federal student loans) REQUIRES the information of your parents if you are under 24 years old and not married or a veteran of the military.

So she will have to ask her parents to fill out that form (which I don’t feel like they’ll be inclined to do) for her to even apply for basic financial aid. At the college I attended and many others, they will not even consider you for the school’s financial aid at all (scholarships or otherwise) unless you have turned in the FAFSA. Worse, if she somehow DOES get her parents to fill out that paperwork, all the money that they have saved up for her education (but are refusing to let her use) will be counted against her, so she’ll likely not receive a Pell grant, Federal student loans, or possibly even assistance from the school itself because of her parents income/savings.

Basically, she’ll be having to pay entirely with money she earns herself and private student loans – which is not a good place to be, even when talking about a lower cost state university. Is it do-able? I suppose so. But I can kind of understand where she would try her hardest to get that money, since it will be counted against her in her financial aid paperwork, anyway.

I wrote about the subject of not easily being able to fill out a FAFSA without parental information here: http://poorerthanyou.com/2009/04/13/how-to-file-the-fafsa-without-your-parents-information/ If you have a look at the comments, there are a lot of young people in unique situations, being badly affected by this issue.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,435 (Platinum)

This all may be true. And I might say that she should have considered these consequences before walking out of the house (if that’s in fact what she did). There’s always the option of not going to college until she can afford it herself. I’m sure if she’s as bright as she claims, the local community college would be happy to have her as a student. And she wouldn’t even need to fill out a FAFSA if she were to work for a few years and save her money. One report implies the college fund is either held in the daughter’s name or is a UTMA or UGMA — so if that’s the case, the money will eventually be hers anyway, regardless of the parents’ disapproval of her behavior. Next time, 529!

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avatar Meghan

I don’t think she has a case but in many states, support continues through high school, so there could be merit. I am not familiar with New Jersey.

Also, her parents violated the contract they signed with the school, so they should be liable, but to the school. The school stands with the student but they have said that they won’t kick her out without payment.

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avatar Steve
avatar Kathy

This girl is exhibiting the spoiled and entitled attitudes that her generation is always accused of having. She should be offensive to every other teen in this country, if indeed they do not share the same attitudes. Even if she lived at home, I don’t think that her parents have a legal responsibility to fund her private school and college tuition. It sounds like the judge is going to be pretty tough on her, based on the first reports from the courtroom. My main question, however, is how did this girl get that kind of attitude while being raised by parents who appear to be pretty well grounded? When I was growing up, I wouldn’t have even considered this act to be an option.

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avatar Donna Freedman ♦55 (Newbie)

She may have gotten the attitude from her peers. I grew up in a working-class household in a rural area, and when I went to a college with some very affluent young women they were SHOCKED that I had to take out loans and was paying for the rest of it through work-study, housecleaning and babysitting.
“Your parents should be paying for this,” I heard more than once.
And I replied, more than once, “But they don’t have any money either.”
(They didn’t, having been embroiled in a long-running divorce. My mom drove me up to the college, and my dad mailed me a $5 bill two or three times during my one year there. That was about the extent of what they could afford.)
I can imagine that some of the kids in her class had the same attitude. Her boyfriend may be an instigator, too: “They don’t want us to be together. We’ll show them! Nothing can keep us apart!”
And since the father of the family with whom she’s living is an attorney, he may have researched the case law and thought, “Hmmm, I could get her education paid for and some living expenses for all the money we’re spending on her.” (To say nothing of the publicity.)
Who knows? Myself, I think she’s got the wrong idea no matter what NJ statutes say: If you’re 18 and don’t want to follow the rules of the house, you are free to leave. She would certainly have to downsize her expectations, though, and I doubt she wants to do that. Who would, especially at that age when you do still think the world owes you a living?

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avatar Adam Kamerer

I suspect there are dramatic elements to this that we aren’t privy to. This smells of a long history of family discord, miscommunication, and probably some priorities that went wildly off track a long time ago. It feels like the girl is trying to manipulate her parents into giving in by bringing this to a spectacle court case. I hope the judge rules against the girl — with this being a voluntary move, she’s not entitled to anything her parents decide not to give her, in my opinion.

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avatar futchica

I’ve found the way the media has covered this story so far quite interesting. Everyone is falling over themselves to call this young woman a spoiled, entitled brat. I don’t necessarily disagree, but can we recognize that the only way she could have become a spoiled, entitled brat is from horrendous parenting? The same horrendous parenting that results in the inability to keep your failure as parents out of a public courtroom? The same parents who think it’s worth it to risk their kid not finishing high school (after shelling out for 3+ years of private tuition) because they don’t like their kid’s boyfriend. Yeah, I’m sure he’s a terrible influence, but he isn’t going to top them in that category.

Millions of families have gone through similar boundary skirmishes with their newly-minted adult kids and have managed to find a reasonable compromise. Such as, “if you don’t follow the house rules, you may not live in our house now that you’re an adult, but we enrolled you in that private high school, so we’ll cover the remainder of those expenses…” I don’t think Ms. Canning is owed any of her parents’ money beyond the obligations they themselves made on her behalf. I think the $600/week allowance is ridiculous, but maybe a fair “stupid tax” for these parents.

I also wanted to second Stephonee on the college finance issue. While I don’t think parents are in any way required to pay for their kid’s college expenses, colleges don’t feel the same way. Perhaps Ms. Canning should marry that boyfriend her parent dislike so much.

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avatar Donna Freedman ♦55 (Newbie)

It’s a power struggle on both sides of the courtroom, and we’ll likely never know the full story. But if she needs to finish high school, there’s probably a pretty good one in her town. Public school — the horror! — but she can get her diploma and move on.

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avatar Abigail

I’m surprised that the parents don’t have to automatically pay for the private school. I would assume that the bills were in their name. Unless they called the school to inform it that they’d no longer be paying tuition for the girl, I think they’re on the hook for that. And, apparently, for raising a spoiled, entitled girl.

Again, I think she might have merit to argue that her parents should finish paying her private school, assuming they didn’t send notice to her and the school that funding would stop. As for the rest… Like you said, college (let alone funding for college) is not an inherent right.

And I doubt that a judge would rule that she needs to be supported just because she’s going to school. She could drop out and support herself. Therefore, her decision to instead go to school and work would be her own. Unless she had a disabling condition, there’s really no link to a case about whether people over 18 can support themselves.

Kind of makes me want to fly to Jersey and shake her hard. And pick up some Tastykakes of course.

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avatar Donna Freedman ♦55 (Newbie)

Maybe a few weeks in public school would show her just how good she had it before she decided she didn’t have enough.

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avatar Donna Freedman ♦55 (Newbie)

Now that she’s back home, she has only to get through a few more months of high school and then disappear into some college — which apparently will be paid for by her parents after all.
If I were them, I’d insist she work summers and at least part-time during the school year. Ten or 12 hours a week of retail clerking or waitressing won’t preclude her getting good grades. It will also give her a taste of what her life might have been like had she not gone back home.
We’ll never know the real story. Perhaps her parents were emotionally abusive. Or perhaps they just requested things she didn’t like and to her that screamed “Abuse!”

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avatar jim

I generally fall into the “if you’re 18 then you’re an adult” camp on this one so it was puzzling to hear that this was even a lawsuit given the girl is 18. But apparently being 18 in NJ doesn’t cut you off of parental support.
I do think we’re probably missing some key details about this case. Maybe the details don’t matter that much here past the basics but there could be more to the story. For example, depending on how the college fund is actually setup she could have a legitimate legal claim to that money. If its a UTMA for example and her parents aren’t allowing her access, then she may have legal right to it.

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avatar Yana

From what I’ve read about this, and taking a look at pictures of the girl and her parents, I have concluded that the girl is a disgrace and I feel very sorry for her parents. Things like this that I read about, that display a complete dismissal of what is important in life, make me both sad and make me feel very lucky that I am not in the position of the victims.

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avatar TERESA

I have an 18 yr old son that walked out of my house to his dads 2 yrs ago. He didn’t like the rules of having to get a job and whatever else he felt was beyond him, as his dad was telling him he didn’t need a job and what not. I tried to keep up communication with my son and even met him for a day date and texted him. 3 months after he left, he stopped speaking to me. I texted him every month for a year. After that year, I quit. Not becuase I don’t want a relationship with my son, but no where does it say that I, as his parent, estranged or not, that I’m obligated to be his doormat. He turned 18 last May, as his parent, it was my “duty” to have insurance coverage on him and I did, until January of this year. I dropped it because I don’t feel I should, or will, pay for an “adult’ child and definitely not one who has not talked to me in almost 2 yrs. I am very much a believer in at 18 you’re an adult. And at this point, if he or his father were to sue me for any costs concerning college or anything , I’d run them into the ground. You want to act and be treated like an adult, then fend yourself. I graduated early and moved ouf of my parents house within the week and I’ve been on my own ever since. Sueing my parents never crossed my mind. I worked 2 jobs then 3 for a time and did it for myself. There was no entitlement there. So this adult child needs to grow and up be the adult she wants to be treated as, without her parents monetary support.

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avatar qixx ♦1,880 (Half-Dollar)

I was looking into see if there were any updates on the case. It appears the father reported as still stating that the college fund is hers for attending school wherever and is not being stipulated as only paying for certain schools. Her top choice is out-of-state and tuition would be $30,000 per year. I’ve not seen anything to indicate that the college fund is or is not enough to pay for that college bill.

My question i was trying to figure out is who would the school take to collections if the unpaid tuition is not paid. My guess is the parents signed the tuition agreement and it does not fall to the daughter. So the daughter is not legally obligated to pay for the tuition bill.

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