The Case of Rachel Canning and Parents’ Obligations to Pay Support and Tuition

It seems as if last week all the news outlets, local and national, were abuzz with the case of Rachel Canning, who filed a lawsuit against her parents here in New Jersey demanding support as well as private high school and college tuition payments – all despite the fact that she has for the last five months been living with another family. The case has all the right ingredients to make it a headliner: the attractive school-girl who is alleged on one hand to be an honors student and athlete, yet on the other an entitled party-girl brought home drunk mid-week by her boyfriend’s parents. There are her parents, who continue to profess their love for their daughter, and desire to see her home, but also admit their frustration at parenting a disobedient child who they feel engages in dangerous behavior. And there is also the weird involvement of a best friend and her local politician/lawyer father, who has candidly acknowledged his bank-rolling the litigation (but is asking for reimbursement).

Since gaining a national audience, the brashness of the suit has in some respects overshadowed the serious legal issues at play, as well as the sad reality that a family’s most private affairs have been forced into the open for critique and judgment. More than anything, it is a reminder that family law deals often with some of the most emotionally raw and culturally difficult issues. It also concerns rights often viewed as fundamental to our notions of “family.” At its core, the case pits the constitutional rights of parents to parent their child as they deem fit, without interference (and judgment) from outsiders, against the parens patriae role of the state to ensure a child’s well-being.

Moreover, mixed up in this, as a delimiting factor, is whether the child is emancipated such that she even has grounds to bring her case. (I have written previously about the standards involved in emancipating a child here). Thus, the parents and the child have vastly different views on how she came to leave the parents’ home. Rachel says that she was effectively thrown out of her parents’ house while mom and dad say she voluntarily left because she was unwilling to follow certain rules and help with chores. Her emancipation status is critical to whether the case proceeds to a hearing on what, if any, support and/or college costs the parent’s might be obligated to pay.

At the hearing this past March 5, 2014, the Court denied Rachel’s emergent application, urged the parties to try to work out a settlement, and yet scheduled a return date for April 22nd. Should the parties return without a mutually agreeable resolution, the Court will likely move to schedule a hearing on the issue of emancipation as a predicate question to the larger dispute of financial obligation.

The court acknowledged the difficulty of Rachel’s position, noting, “[d]o we want to establish a precedent where parents live in basic fear of establishing the rules of the house?” Moreover, the court suggested, “[allowing the emergent order] would represent essentially a new law or a new way of interpreting an existing law … A kid could move out and then sue for an Xbox, an iPhone or a 60-in television … We should be mindful of a potentially slippery slope.”

Further highlighting the implications of Rachel’s request, the parents’ attorney suggested  that allowing the application would embolden other children to say to their parents, “I am going to live with my [significant other] no matter what you say, but you’ll still have to pay for my college.”

The choice of college as the attorney’s example is prescient. As other commentators on this matter have noted, were the issue of college costs to come up in the context of a divorce between Rachel’s parents, the court would most certainly hold them liable for contribution toward that cost. But intact families enjoy a functionally higher level of privacy and autonomy than divorced families and the decision to fund college has historically been deemed a “family” decision. Thus, if married parents decide they won’t contribute to college, their decision is typically free from questioning by third-parties.

Finally, in a likely foreshadowing that this matter may end not in a bang but a whimper, recent news sources are now reporting that Rachel has reunited with her family and siblings, though the lawsuit itself remains pending.

UPDATE: The case against Rachel’s parents has been officially withdrawn.

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