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Regardless of outcome in Canning case PA unlikely to change laws

NJ judge to decide if parents required to pay for 18 year old's college tuition
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

A New Jersey high school senior made national headlines today for suing her parents to pay for her college tuition and other related expenses. According to a report in abc News, Rachel Canning from Morristown, NJ went family court on March 4 and asked the judge to declare her a dependent minor and to require her parents to pay a $5,306 tuition bill she received from Morris Catholic High School. Canning, who turned 18 years old last October, also asked the judge to grant her request to be reimbursed for past, current and future transportation and living expenses along with being reimbursed the legal costs to bring the case to court. Her most controversial request was to have her parents continue to contribute to her college fund. Canning's parents, Sean and Elizabeth, said that they had every intention to provide for their daughter as long as she lived in the family home. In her lawsuit, Rachel Canning alleged that following a fight with her parents that they tossed her out refusing to support her financially. According to MSN News, court papers documented her parents in countering those allegations stating that their oldest daughter moved out voluntarily in protest to house rules which included helping out with chores and observing a curfew. After moving out of her parent's home, Rachel Canning moved in with her best friend whose father is the lawyer representing her in family court. Canning is seeking more than $13,000 in reimbursement for past education, living and legal expenses.

Comments on PennLive reflected the mid-state community outrage about the Canning lawsuit. Some posters were in support of Canning's parents believing that because she is legally an adult that she is also financially responsible for herself. Others were skeptical of the lawsuit wondering if the teenager was put up to it by her friend's father who is also the lawyer representing her in the case against her parents. The debate about responsibility to provide an education and the privilege to attend college was brought up. Many posters felt that Canning was out of line and applauded her parents for setting rules and expectations. Most agreed that the parents should cover the remaining cost of Canning's high school tuition but should not be required to pay for her college tuition. Of a bigger debate was what the judge's ruling in New Jersey might mean for the other states. In other words, if the judge rules in Canning's favor, the case could be used as precedent opening up the floodgates for teens across the United States to sue their parents to pay for their college tuition. More worrisome for separated and divorced parents would be a ruling that would require them to continue to be financially obligated to pay for an adult child long after their support payments would usually terminate.

Although those concerns are legitimate, even if Canning were to win her case in court, it is likely to have little to no effect in how judges rule in Pennsylvania family courts. Firstly, New Jersey law is ambiguous about the age of majority whereas the individual must be self-sufficient rather than simply reaching a certain age. In contrast, the age of majority in Pennsylvania is 18 at which the individual may be sued independent of their parents and also can sue another. Secondly, emancipation laws are different in the states. In New Jersey, a child is not automatically considered emancipated when they turn 18 years old, and divorced parents can be required to continue child support payments while their child attends college. According to the PA Code, a child also is not automatically emancipated when they reach the age of 18 as there is a legal process to go through in order to make that happen. Just the same, Pennsylvania has a compulsory education law that stipulates that a minor is required to attend secondary school at least until they reach 17 years of age. At that point, the minor can drop out of school and there is legally nothing that the school district or their parents can do to force them to attend. A minor who is 16 years old, works a day job and possesses an employment certificate may also drop out without being forced by a court of law to complete high school. Thirdly, courts in some states have ruled that parents are required to pay for their child's college tuition even after the person reached the age of majority. Providing the parents have sufficient resources, a family court can rule that they are financially responsible for paying for their child's college tuition. Although this is currently under debate in New Jersey though the Canning case, it is doubtful that Pennsylvania courts would follow that precedent. The PA Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for a divorced parent to be financially responsible to pay support payments to the custodial parent when their child reached the age of majority and is attending college. Finally, unlike some other states, the Commonwealth tends to not jump on the bandwagon just because everyone else is doing something. For example, in most states liquor, wine and beer can be bought and sold by most any distributor looking to make a buck including grocery stores, yet every attempt to privatize the sale of wine and spirits failed in Pennsylvania. There is no reason to suspect any judge in this state will be inspired to change the laws in PA based on another judge's ruling in New Jersey.

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