Watching the “Harry Potter” movies with my kids allowed me to reach the proud parental conclusion that my kids, even at their worst, were far removed from the heinous behavior of Harry Potter’s cousin, Dudley. A child who could demand more birthday presents even after being showered with every toy the department store could hold, and who could get away with complaining constantly about everything, in spite of having it all, probably stands as the modern definition of “spoiled brat”.
Then along came Rachel Canning, the 18 year old high school student from New Jersey, who recently sued her parents, seeking that they be ordered to provide her financial assistance with her education (tuition at the private Catholic high school she currently attends, and then her college tuition thereafter), along with her current living and transportation expenses. From the pictures of Rachel on the internet, she does not appear to be someone who has ever wanted for much. The wrinkle in this story is that Rachel left her parents’ home voluntarily. The debate is whether she left because she didn’t want to follow her parents’ house rules (do some chores, abide by a curfew, etc.) or because she felt “abused” by name-calling and psychological mistreatment by her parents. From my perspective, the reason she left should not matter. She left. She is 18. Many a teenager over the years has begged for time to accelerate so that he/she could reach the age of 18, graduate high school or otherwise become emancipated from their parents. However, Rachel wants to the court to declare her “unemancipated”, since parents are not legally obligated to provide financial support for a child who is emancipated. New Jersey law does not consider a child to be “emancipated” unless they have left “the scope of his or her parents’ authority”. Seems like Rachel wants it both ways, i.e., the benefits of emancipation (freedom to do as one pleases) along with all the financial entitlement and support from parents of one who is not emancipated.
I don’t know if Rachel’s attorney is a parent or not. As one who is, my immediate reaction is that she can finish her last semester of high school in public school, since she has already benefitted from years of her parents having paid for a private education (although in the recent hearing on her suit, the judge noted that Rachel’s private school is not even making payment of her tuition an issue for her). Likewise, is she chooses to live elsewhere, one of the early life-lessons all people learn upon moving out on their own is that food, transportation, housing, etc., all costs money. If she were like the other millions of kids who will leave the comfort of their parents’ homes after turning 18 she’d have to pay those bills herself. Why not her? In her case, she has been staying at the home of one of her friends. Did those parents expect or demand payment? Apparently not. If they aren’t happy with the situation, they certainly have the right to throw her out.
Perhaps the most troubling, and as yet unresolved, issue in this case involves Rachel’s college tuition and expenses. The court denied her request for immediate financial assistance from her parents last week in a hearing, but tabled the issue of college tuition. While there may exist a “college fund” for Rachel that her parents established for their little darling when she was a toddler, does that entitle her to that money, now or ever? Unless she herself contributed some money from her own employment to date (why do I have a tough time picturing that?), what would actually prevent her parents from renaming the money otherwise set aside for Rachel’s college as their “Retirement Fund” or “Round the World Cruise Fund”? While colleges expect that students and their parents will pay the costs of a college education, I’m not sure that the waters have ever been tested in a situation where the parents and student involved are at loggerheads over who is actually responsible as between them. If a student applies, is accepted and then enrolls in a college and the parents won’t pay the tuition, unless they have signed off on any of the documents, are they legally liable? This particular case has the potential to set a dangerous precedent about what obligations parents have to provide for adult children who simply “want” something. We will have to see how this develops.
The only thing certain about the Rachel Canning matter is that their family holiday get-togethers in the future are almost certain to be tense affairs…