Parents Beware! Your Teenager Could Sue You

Today on Good Day Philadelphia on Fox 29, I spoke about the New Jersey teen who is suing her parents for support.  She believes that they should pay for her parochial high school education as well as her future college education.  See details of the story here.

While the Court initially rejected her claim regarding payment of high school tuition as well as reimbursement of attorney’s fees that her friend’s father has been paying on her behalf, a hearing is scheduled in April on the issue of payment for college.

In New Jersey, divorced parents usually have to contribute to their child’s college education based on the theory that children of divorced parents should be treated the same as children of intact families.  Since, most parents do their best to send their children to college these days, children of divorced parents should have the same opportunity.  When determining how much a divorced or non-married parent has to pay for college, the Court can consider a number of factors including the child’s aptitude, cost of the proposed college, the parent’s ability to pay, the child’s ability to help mitigate the cost, and the level of communication between the parent and child, that is, was the parent involved in the college decision making process.

The case at hand is so interesting and has so many people talking because it involves a child suing her parents (who are not divorced) to obtain the same benefits as the child of a divorced couple could otherwise receive in New Jersey.  If the Court here decides in favor of the child, it will go against one of the most basic tenets of our society — that parental decision making should not typically be disturbed and that parents’ generally have the right to raise their children as they see fit.

Moreover, there is a question here as to whether this child is emancipated or should be emancipated such that the parents will have no further obligation to financially support her.  In New Jersey, emancipation does not usually occur until age 18 or graduation from high school unless the child furthers his or her education through college.  Emancipation then occurs when that education is complete.  Once a child is emancipated, they are no longer within the sphere of parental influence.

Here, this child moved out of her parent’s home and went to live with a friend.  She claims her parent’s were mean and abusive to her.  The parents’ deny these allegations and are begging this child to return home.  Given that this child certainly acted outside of the sphere of her parents’ influence, why should her parents be obligated to continue to support her?  This is a question that the Court will undoubtedly answer.

Most parents are outraged by this case.  They cannot believe that their own child can turn around and sue them.  But this is not so unusual — cases of this nature do occur from time to time.  It remains to be seen how the Court decides this.  Certainly, if the Court finds in favor of the child, the floodgates of litigation will open and we will see many more instances of parents having to defend their decisions in a legal forum.

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About Family Law Focus
The Family Law Focus blog provides highlights, updates and insights on complex family disputes including divorce, division of property, and alimony; child and spousal support; child custody; domestic violence; pre- and post-nuptial agreements; name changes; and adoption or termination of parental rights.
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The Editor

Attorney Jennifer A. Brandt, chair of Cozen O'Connor's Family Law practice, has represented a wide variety of clients in hundreds of family law cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Jennifer is a regular legal commentator on national and local television outlets such as CNN, Fox New Network, HLN, MSNBC, Fox29, ABC News, NBC and CBS and frequently writes and contributes to articles in numerous publications, including the Huffington Post, Fox Business.com, The PhiIly Post, Avvo.com, Allparenting.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Business Journal, the National Law Journal, and Main Line Today magazine.
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