“Aren’t I done paying support once my kid turns 18?!” is common sentiment among many parents who are paying child support. A recent case that has been making waves in the news involves a New Jersey teenager who sued her parents so they would be forced to pay for her college education. Each state treats a divorced or separated parent’s obligation to pay for his/her child’s college differently. In most states, child support ends once the child reaches the age of 18 and graduates from high school. Pennsylvania has adopted that same principle. In 1992, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that unless there is a written agreement between the parents to pay for college, parents have no obligation to financially support their child once they reach the age of 18 and have graduated from high school.
It is, however, not so black and white in New Jersey. In New Jersey, a child is only considered emancipated once he or she has moved “beyond the sphere of parental influence and has obtained an independent status of his or her own.” In plain English, New Jersey considers emancipation to occur when the child is capable of financially supporting themselves. In most cases, that is when the child graduates from high school. However, if the child is a full-time college student, the courts in New Jersey have found them to still be dependent upon their parents and are therefore, not emancipated. The court would then look at the parents’ incomes and determine what percentage of the tuition and college expenses each parent should be responsible to pay.
What makes the case about the New Jersey teen noteworthy is that her parents were neither divorced nor separated. The courts in New Jersey have never ordered parents of an intact family to financially support their child, and especially not to pay for their college. It would have been very interesting to see how the court would have decided that case. Unfortunately, that case succumbed to the media hype and turned into a he said/she said of whether the student was just being a spoiled teen or if her parents were being overly frugal and unnecessarily withholding financial support from her. After weeks of all that hoopla, the teen dropped her lawsuit against her parents. It is unknown what the parents ultimately decided.
If you do happen to live in a state that requires college contribution, you can at least rest assured that your child usually must first apply for all available grants, scholarships and financial aid, prior to the parent’s financial obligation being determined. When calculating the parent’s contribution, the courts will also look at the type of school the child wants to attend, the amount of the tuition, the child’s grades and abilities, and what input the parent had in choosing the college.