Child support is meant to provide a child with the basic necessities, such as food, clothing and shelter. While it's impossible to name every single thing a child needs, the New Jersey courts have generally ruled that a college education is a basic necessity and as such, a parent should be ordered to pay towards that education. Although the classification of college expenses as a child support obligation seems like a sensible idea, many parents argue that it's inherently unfair, since married parents are not obligated to provide their children with a college education.
The disparity between the rights of married parents and divorced parents became an issue of public debate in 2014, when 18 year old Rachel Canning of Lincoln Park, NJ filed suit against her parents for child support, including her private school tuition and future college expenses. Ms. Canning had moved out of her parent's home in 2013, because she refused abide by their rules, which included breaking up with her boyfriend. Although she was 18, and had voluntarily moved out, she stated in her court filings that she was not an emancipated adult, and was still dependent on her parents for financial support.
In terms of the law, it was within Ms. Canning's rights to assert that she was not fully emancipated. Determining whether a child is still dependent on his or her parents requires the courts to examine various factors that pertain to the child's needs and abilities, as well as the nature of the relationship between the child and parents. In the case of a child seeking support from a divorced parent, it's more likely than not that the parent would have been ordered to contribute towards college expenses. However, there is no legal precedent in New Jersey requiring married parents to support their children beyond the age of 18, providing that they have graduated high school. Hence, it would have been an uphill battle for Ms. Canning, who chose not to abide by her parents' rules, voluntarily left the family home, and seemed to be beyond “the sphere of influence and responsibility” of her parents, according to Fillipone v. Lee.
Ms. Canning must have realized what she was up against; she dropped her suit in 2014 and moved back in with her parents. She has recently announced that she will be attending Western New England University on a $56,000 scholarship. While this is a happy ending for the Cannings, divorced parents are having continue to battle their adult children in court over the issue of paying for college. There is some merit to the argument that mandating divorced parents to continue supporting their adult children is a violation of the equal protection clause under the New Jersey State Constitution. This dilemma has been addressed somewhat by new termination guidelines that were signed into law in January 2016, but there's no doubt that it will remain a point of contention among divorced parents and legal professionals.