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Teen’s suit focuses on parental responsibility

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High-school senior Rachel Canning, 18, appears in Morris County Superior Court in Morristown, N.J., on March 4. (The Associated Press)

High-school senior Rachel Canning, 18, appears in Morris County Superior Court in Morristown, N.J., on March 4. (The Associated Press)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates the average cost of raising a child to age 18 is nearly $250,000. Providing a college education can easily double that figure. In New Mexico, and many other states, once a child reaches the age of 18, they are considered an adult and the parents’ legal obligation to provide economic support ends, absent some enforceable private gift or agreement.

Some states, however, require parental support after the age of 18 if the minor child still lives at home and has not otherwise become “emancipated,” or financially independent. A landmark case that unfolded in New Jersey has drawn national attention to the limits of parental responsibility for economic support after age 18.

Lincoln Park, N.J., high-school senior Rachel Canning sued her parents seeking a court order that they must continue to support her beyond her 18th birthday, including living expenses and tuition at a private high school. She claimed they must also pay her future college tuition and living expenses. It is undisputed Ms. Canning moved out of her parents’ home some months ago and moved in with family friends; they also are paying for Rachel’s lawyer. The reasons for her departure from the family home are hotly disputed, with Rachel claiming she suffered both physical and emotional abuse at home, and her parents’ responding that she chose to leave voluntarily because she did not want to live under her parents’ house rules including assigned household chores and nighttime curfews. An independent investigation by New Jersey’s child-welfare authorities found no evidence to substantiate Rachel’s abuse claims.

While Rachel is an honor student, active in athletics, and holds a job, she was suspended from school for truancy late last year. Her parents claimed Rachel moved out to avoid any penalties for that suspension and so that she could live without any parental control.

Section 28-6-1, NMSA, states: “… any person who has reached his eighteenth birthday shall be considered to have reached his majority … and is an adult for all purposes …” In contrast, New Jersey law maintains that a parent’s duty to support his or her child continues after age 18 if the child is not emancipated. Emancipation, in turn, is determined by whether the child has voluntarily put themselves beyond the parents’ control and outside the scope of their authority. The court, then, was to determine whether Rachel voluntarily left her family’s home and emancipated herself, or whether her parents forced her to leave so they could avoid providing continued financial support. Earlier this month, the assigned judge denied Ms. Canning’s request that her tuition at Morris Catholic High School, and her living expenses for this last semester, be paid immediately. The judge also set a hearing to determine the key issue of whether Ms. Canning voluntarily emancipated herself or was forced from the family home by unreasonable parents.

About a week ago, Rachel voluntarily moved back into her family home and last Tuesday she asked the court to dismiss her lawsuit. The judge determined that she was knowingly and voluntarily requesting her claim be dismissed and granted her request. That case is over, but I suspect there will be some tense dinner conversations at the Canning home for some time to come.

Elizabeth and Sean Canning, parents of Rachel Canning, cry during a hearing at the Morris County, N.J., Courthouse. Sean Canning is the retired police chief of Lincoln Park, N.J. (The Associated Press)

Elizabeth and Sean Canning, parents of Rachel Canning, cry during a hearing at the Morris County, N.J., Courthouse. Sean Canning is the retired police chief of Lincoln Park, N.J. (The Associated Press)

While Canning v. Canning has ended, the issues it raised remain. Legal commentators say they have never seen a case like this one. Some worried that Ms Canning’s claim presented a very dangerous precedent under which a young person could too easily claim they were driven from the family home before they were financially capable, and so force continued economic support even where they have put themselves “outside the scope” of the parent’s authority. Others comment it is essential that young people be able to escape from overbearing, unfair, abusive parents without facing starvation. Aside from expert legal commentary, this case evokes a good deal of emotional response. Is it “my roof, my rules,” or do parents have a legal or moral obligation to continue supporting their children after they reach adulthood? Does a child, at whatever age, have an obligation to “honor thy father,” while cashing father’s checks? This issue may arise in another lawsuit someday. I’ll let you know. In the meantime, as always, you can “Judge for Yourself .”

Alan M. Malott is a judge of the 2nd Judicial District Court. Before joining the court, he practiced law throughout New Mexico for 30 years and was a nationally certified civil trial specialist. If you have questions, send them to Judge Malott, P.O. Box 8305, Albuquerque, NM 87198 or email to: alan@malottlaw.com. Opinions expressed here are solely those of Judge Malott individually and not those of the court.

 

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