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New Jersey Teen Sues Parents for Support and College Expenses – How California Emancipation Laws Might Apply

Scales of JusticeUnless you live under a rock, you have probably heard of the teenager in New Jersey who attempted to sue her parents for support and college tuition. Some speculators have called this a potential precedent changing case.

To lay out the case, the 18 year old teenager moved out of her parents’ home last fall due to a family dispute. Her parents stopped paying her private high school tuition and may withhold her college funds. The private school has allowed her to stay enrolled, but the spring bill remains unresolved. She brought a lawsuit against her parents requesting living expenses, health care coverage, private school costs, college tuition and expenses, and legal fees.

According to court documents, her parents claim that she disobeyed their house rules, came home drunk, violated curfew, and disrespected them. They blamed her behavior on a new boyfriend, and, after being suspended for cutting school to hang out with this boyfriend, they refused to let her continue to see the boyfriend. The teenager moved out. The parents argue that she emancipated herself, and they are no longer required to support her.

The teenager claims that she did not voluntarily leave but her parent’s emotional abuse amounted to a “constructive eviction”. She claims that her parents repeatedly called her “fat” and “porky” causing her to develop bulimia. She also claims that her father was “inappropriately affectionate.” However, after an investigation, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (“DCPP”) found no abuse.

A New Jersey judge denied her emergency request for living expenses, private high school costs, and legal fees. He did require the parents keep her on their healthcare plan. The judge set a date for the hearing on college expenses. The parents have a college fund but do not want to pay without being involved in the decision making process.

In New Jersey, the ruling case for emancipation, Filippone v. Lee, holds that there is a rebuttable presumption that a child is emancipated at the age of eighteen. In rebutting the presumption, courts will make a fact-sensitive inquiry. The “essential” inquiry is whether the child has moved “beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility” of the parents. This may be a little problematic for the New Jersey teen as it may require her to obey her parents rules in order to get support.

In California, Family Code § 3900-3902, provides that a parent is obligated to provide support for an 18 year old unmarried child who is a high school student and is not self-supporting until they graduate or become 19, whichever occurs first. In the leading case, In re Marriage of Hubner, the court required the non-custodial parent to continue child support even though the child had to extend his graduation date after studying abroad for a year. The court held that the child was not obligated to complete high school on time since California has a strict cut off at 19 years of age. As there is no known case law in California with the similar facts as the New Jersey case, any analysis is purely speculative. Nevertheless, the parents might have a harder time in California arguing that the child was emancipated since the teenager was not self-supporting.

The teenager also seeks to receive college tuition and living expenses after high school. In the leading New Jersey case, titled Newburgh v. Arrigo, a father had been paying his son’s college fees and living costs for law school even though the child had exceeded the age of 18. Upon the father’s death, the son requested a share of the estate’s wrongful death settlement to pay for college expenses. Noting that New Jersey has required non-custodial parents to pay for college expenses, the court elucidated a 12 factor test in determining the college contribution required by a parent. In the current case, there has been much speculation about factor 11, which considers “the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance.” Again, this may be problematic for the New Jersey teenager as she has not been very responsive to her parent’s advice.

In California, according to the NCSL, there is no statute or case law requiring a parent to cover college expenses. Absent an agreement, like a divorce decree, a parent is not obligated to pay for college expenses. In California, the teenager probably would not get college finances, absent a prior agreement.

What is unique about this case is that a lot of the arguments the teenager is making are arguments normally made by custodial parents against non-custodial parents in child support cases. Statutes and laws largely favor collecting child support under a policy of protecting public from having to support the child. However, parent’s have a fundamental right to control and make decisions regarding their children’s education and upbringing. Even in child support cases, the non-custodial parent has some control and say in the raising of a child.

The case is understandably troubling for parents with teenage children and touches several areas of family law. We will continue to follow this case if there end up being any appeals or new developments.

Bay Area Divorce Lawyer, John S. Yohanan, has extensive experience handling child support cases. If you want a family law attorney with more than 30 years of experience on your side, call our office at (408) 297-0700.

Additional Resources:
Families & Children: Emancipation, 2014, Judicial Council of California

Duty of Parent to Support Minor Child, 2012, California Family Code § 3901

More Blog Entries:
California Divorce, Pensions, and Property Division — In Re Marriage of Green, Jan. 15, 2014, San Jose Family Law Blog

Census Data Records More Than $ 14 Billion in Unpaid Child Support Payments, Nov. 15, 2013, San Jose Family Law Blog