United States: When You Sue Your Parents To Pay For College, You May Be Emancipated

Last Updated: February 14 2017
Article by Jessica C. Diamond

In a new published (precedential) decision, Ricci v. Ricci, the Appellate Division addressed an adult child's (an oxymoron, I know) request for her divorced parents to contribute to her college education expenses. Going back to basics, the Appellate Division reminded us that – before any determination about a divorced parent's obligation to contribute to college education expenses can be made – a threshold question must be answered, namely: Is the child emancipated?

The Facts

The pertinent facts are as follows:

  • Maura and Michael Ricci divorced when their daughter, Caitlyn, was four (4) years old. As Caitlyn grew older, she engaged in some less-than-responsible behavior. This is not in dispute. Caitlyn graduated from high school in June 2012, at which time it was determined by Caitlyn's parents that – due to said irresponsible behavior – Caitlyn wasn't ready to go away to college and live on her own. Therefore, Maura and Michael agreed that Michael would pay for the summer and fall semesters of community college; Caitlyn attended as a part-time student while continuing to live with her mother.
  • In Winter 2012, Maura and Michael agreed, as a way of testing the waters as to Caitlyn's readiness to live on her own, that Caitlyn would participate in the Disney College Program in Florida. Within a month of starting the program, Caitlyn was expelled for underage alcohol use.
  • This is where the facts get a bit murky. Maura and Michael say that, after Caitlyn's expulsion from the Disney College Program, they wanted her to return to community college on a part time basis to complete her associate's degree and outlined for Caitlyn a program of school, counseling, and work (i.e. a part time job) in order to instill discipline and a sense of responsibility in her. Caitlyn viewed these expectations as unreasonable and impossible. What is undisputed is that at this point, Caitlyn moved out of her mother's home and in with her grandparents. In Michael and Maura's views, this move was intended as a rejection of their parenting and their attempts to help Caitlyn. In Caitlyn's view, her parents' unrealistic demands "pushed her beyond the sphere of parental influence."
  • In March 2013, after Caitlyn moved out, her parents agreed that Caitlyn was emancipated. They entered into a consent order accordingly.
  • Months later, Caitlyn, still enrolled in community college, filed a motion to intervene in her parents' divorce matter and sought continued support from her parents; specifically, their contribution to her community college tuition. In October 2013, the trial court judge granted her application. Importantly, the judge deemed Caitlyn "un-emancipated [sic] solely for the purpose of a potential contribution from [her parents] as it relates to college costs." He ordered that Maura and Mike pay for Caitlyn's tuition, fees, and costs for the 2013-2014 school year, after application of Caitlyn's financial aid award. This amounted to about $2,000, or what the trial judge viewed as a "de minimis" amount. The judge did not conduct a plenary hearing prior to making its decision that Caitlyn be deemed "un-emancipated" for this specific purpose. Nor did he conduct a review of the parents' finances to determine their abilities to pay for Caitlyn's college expenses.
  • Caitlyn was accepted to Temple University for the Fall 2014 semester. She applied for financial aid and received it, but had about $18,000 / year in un-met tuition expenses, which she wanted her parents to pay. Caitlyn filed a motion seeking to enforce the Court's prior order, arguing that it required her parents to pay her tuition, fees, and book expenses. Maura and Michael opposed the application, arguing that the October 2013 Order was limited to tuition, fees, and books for the 2013-2014 year and that the Order did not determine their obligations, if any, for college contribution in subsequent years. In October 2014, the Court granted Caitlyn's application and "enforced" the prior Order, ordering Maura to cover 40% of the unmet college costs, and Michael to cover the balance.
  • Michael and Maura filed a motion for reconsideration. They argued that the order was unfounded because Caitlyn had unilaterally moved out of Maura's home after refusing to even compromise about the plan they had laid out for her to impose discipline; transferred to an expensive out-of-state school without conferring with them; refused to communicate with her parents; and continued to act independently, without regard to their parental input. In short, they argued, she was emancipated and their obligation to support her ended with her rejection of their parenting. The Court denied their motion and Mike and Maura appealed from all three (3) trial court orders.

The Legal Framework

Whew, that was a lot of facts! Now let's get to the law. In her opinion, Judge Lihotz walked us through the legal framework to which the Court should adhere in these cases. First, the Court needs to answer the threshold question of whether the child at issue is emancipated. Lots more on that below.

Next, if the child is not emancipated, the court must consider whether the child has the aptitude for college. The seminal Newburgh case does not require deferred emancipation for children reaching the age of majority in every single instance; if a child is unable to perform adequately for his or her academic program, then it may be appropriate to find that the child is emancipated.

Finally, if a child has the aptitude for college, a review of the parents' finances and determination of their abilities to pay and to afford college must be undertaken so that the Court can determine what a parent may reasonably contribute to a child's college education expenses.

Highlighting the Threshold Question of Emancipation

In reviewing the trial court decisions below, Judge Lihotz essentially found that the trial judges had put the proverbial cart before the horse by failing to address the threshold question of whether Caitlyn was emancipated or not.

Simply put, the parent-child relationship imbues parents with certain "rights, privileges, duties, and obligations." One such duty is to provide financial support, a form of which is contribution to a child's college education expenses. The Court, in exercising its power to protect children, has authority to impose support obligations, but this power is limited and terminates upon a child's emancipation.

So when is a child emancipated? Well, Judge Lihotz wrote, this depends upon the nature of the parent-child relationship as much, if not more so, than the age of the child:

The dependent parent-child relationship indicative of unemancipation is not merely shown by a child's claimed need for financial support. Our jurisprudence unmistakably mandates there must be examination of the parent-child relationship itself. In fact, a better description is the relationship is one of interdependence: the child's right to support and the parents' obligation to provide payment are inextricably linked to the child's acceptance and the parents' measured exercise of guidance and influence. Conversely, a finding of emancipation is a recognition of a child's independence from a parental influence. (internal citations omitted).

In this case, Judge Lihotz observed, the two sides of the story could lead to different results. Caitlyn's version of the facts was, essentially, that she couldn't possibly have accepted her parents' guidance and influence because they were imposing unreasonable, unbearable restrictions and demands upon her; they had forced her outside of their sphere of influence involuntarily, and why should she be penalized for that? Maura and Michael's version of the facts, on the other hand, was that they were parenting Caitlyn; she needed their strict guidance due to her wild and irresponsible behavior, but she had outright rejected it and chosen to live independently of them and their influence. Given the diametrically opposed accounts of what had happened, Judge Lihotz observed, a plenary hearing and a fact-finding should have taken place in order to make a determination as to whether Caitlyn's version of events rang true such that she should be deemed unemancipated, or whether it was appropriate for her to remain emancipated because her parents' version of the story was more accurate.

One thing seems to be certain: it was improper for the judge to deem Caitlyn un-emancipated for the limited purpose of assessing college expenses to her parents. As Heidi Klum might say, you're either "in" or you're "out."

Either you are emancipated and not entitled to support from your parents – including payment for college expenses – or you're not emancipated, and you are entitled to support.

Let's Try This Again...

Ultimately, Judge Lihotz ordered a remand (legalese for a "do-over") to the trial court. First, the trial judge must hold a plenary hearing to determine whether Caitlyn was emancipated after all. The judge will have to review the record and make an assessment as to whether Caitlyn voluntarily set out on her own path and rejected her parents' guidance and influence. If not, and she was not emancipated, then the Court will have to address the secondary questions of whether Caitlyn had the aptitude for her academic program (which, now that Caitlyn is 23 and may or may not have graduated from college by now, should be self-evident), and will have to review the parties' finances to determine their fair shares of financial responsibility. But it all boils down to that first question: was Caitlyn emancipated when she made her initial application?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Jessica C. Diamond
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