The Real Cost of Teens Suing Their Parents for Child Support

The chances are you weren’t spared the media feeding frenzy surrounding the case of Rachel Canning: the 18-year-old New Jersey high school student who after leaving home tried to sue her parents for child support ($650 a week), private school fees (+$3,000), access to her college savings fund, and reimbursement for legal fees ($12,000+).

The parents said that Rachel had an option many young adults have shared throughout the ages: our roof, our rules; live by our rules or leave. In this case, the rules involved showing respect to her mother, doing some chores, not breaking curfew and considering dumping a boyfriend they felt was a bad influence. Rachel didn’t like the rules, so she left home to live with her best friend.

Rachel claimed she was thrown out by her mother and sued her parents for abandonment and requested court ordered child support, college tuition fees and, oh yes, that she have “her” car back please.

Predictably, the case went global. A common theme among commentators is how outrageous and ridiculous it is for Rachel, now an “adult”, to demand her parents pay for a college education.

The Law’s View on Teens Suing Their Parents

Under New Jersey state law – get ready for it – Rachel’s parents do have the obligation to pay for her living expenses and tuition fees until she completes her education. New Jersey Courts have already held in previous cases that higher education is a necessity and included in basic child support. Under state law, children are not considered emancipated, or legally independent, until they complete their education. If parents can afford it, they are legally required to cover their expenses.

Ross v. Ross

A landmark case in higher education entitlement is the Ross v. Ross case heard by the New Jersey Superior Court in 1982. In that case the mother, who was the custodial parent, requested the father continue paying child support until the child completed law school. The father felt he should not be forced to pay support past college graduation and argued that his daughter could pay for grad school herself by working part-time. The judge decreed the child would not be emancipated until she graduated or dropped from law school and that the non-custodial parent, the father, didn’t have the right to determine how his child would achieve the goal of completing graduate school. The father was directed to continue paying child support.

To Be Or Not To Be Emancipated

The only way Rachel’s parents could have won this case is if the judge determines Rachel voluntarily emancipated herself when she left the family home. Otherwise, the parents would have had to foot the bill. Rachel could theoretically be entitled to a free ride until she completes graduate school.

Usually, this is not an issue. Parents who have to means to do so are generally happy to help their children out with college, particularly if, as in Rachel’s case, they have the aptitude and drive to do so. However, this case could set a precedent where young adults can leave the family home in a tantrum because they don’t like the home rules and still be entitled to all the benefits of living at home. As the judge in the Rachel Canning case asked a few weeks ago: “What will the next step be? Are we going to open the gates to a 12-year old suing for an Xbox? The lawsuit has since been dismissed.

The Real Cost of Raising a Child

This is a money blog, so for a moment, let’s forget the wider moral issue surrounding this case and focus only on the financial implications. Just from a financial perspective, this case triggers a serious budgeting question for parents: how much does it cost to raise a child?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Expenditures on Children by Families 2013 report, a middle-income family will spend $241,080 ($301,970 if you adjust for inflation) to raise a child to the age of 18. In comparison, the median sale price of a new home in 2013 was $265,900. This doesn’t include the cost of college or the living expenses past the age of 18.

So, if college is now a requirement for middle-income families, where does that put the cost of raising a child? According to The College Board, assuming an annual 5% increase in fees, children born in 2013 will have to pay $92,000 for a 4-year degree in a public university (in-state) or $312,200 for a 4-year degree in a private college education, if they enroll in 2031. Even if you go the “cheap” route, you will need more than $357,900 for each child.

There’s no doubt parenthood is a wonderful gift. I’m not a parent, but I can’t imagine many achievements that provide more satisfaction than seeing your child grow to be a happy and successful man or woman. However, it’s a gift that is hardly free. Next time you’re in the mood to make a baby, consider whether you have the cash required to see the job through.

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