Teen sues parents for college money

Rachel Canning at a preliminary court appearance on 4 March, 2014. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A judge wonders whether Rachel Canning's case will "open the gates to a 12-year-old suing for an Xbox"

At age 41, I'm probably too young to ask what the deal is with kids today, but... What's the deal with kids today?

Last week we heard of the daughter whose Facebook bragging cost her father a hefty age-discrimination settlement. Now there's this:

According to New Jersey's Daily Record, a high school student who left home when she turned 18 is suing her parents to get them to fund her college education. Depending on whom you ask, she was either thrown out by her mum and dad or departed on her own accord because she didn't want to live by their rules anymore.

Peggy Wright reports that Rachel Canning is asking a court to order her parents to pay the balance of her private high school tuition, cover rent and living expenses and "commit an existing college fund to their daughter".

On Tuesday, a New Jersey superior court judge ruled that there was no "emergency basis" to award Rachel money immediately for her outstanding high school tuition and living expenses.

In announcing his decision, Judge Peter Bogaard wondered about the precedent the case may set.

"What will the next step be?" he asked "Are we going to open the gates to a 12-year-old suing for an Xbox?"

Another hearing is set for 22 April, when lawyers will bring in supporting witnesses. In the meantime Rachel is living with a friend, whose father is bankrolling the lawsuit (reimbursement for legal fees incurred is also part of the case).

"The father contended that Rachel moved out because she didn't want to abide by simple household rules - be respectful, keep a curfew, return 'borrowed' items to her two sisters, manage a few chores, and reconsider or end her relationship with a boyfriend the parents believe is a bad influence," reports Wright.

The issue, it seems, turns on whether Rachel is "emancipated" from her parents under state law. If a court finds she isn't, then the parents may have to foot the bill. If she is, then she's on her own.

"Contrary to a popular opinion - and that private countdown clock ticking away in many parents' minds - a child is not automatically legally let loose to fend for him- or herself upon reaching an 18th birthday," writes Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams. "Just because you can vote, work, enlist in the armed forced and get married doesn't mean your parents are no longer obliged to care for you."

If that 18-year-old is still a student, for instance, the parent-child ties may still bind.

Williams says that she can see both sides of the dispute:

It's hard for the many, many of us who cobbled together our educations while working thankless, crappy jobs to have a lot of sympathy for an able-bodied, intelligent girl who'd haul her parents into court to make them pay for college. But it's also got to be a humiliating and very scary blow for a high school student to have her folks stop supporting her and paying her current tuition.

The case has garnered widespread attention, as Rachel's Facebook (again - parents, take heed!) pictures, including bikini and cheerleading photos, have been spread far and wide across the Internet.

"Well, that's one way to get back at your parents," writes Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times.

"Is this a case of a spoiled rich girl wanting something for nothing or do her parents owe her?" asks Erin Edgemon on the Birmingham News website AL.com.

The Australia website News.com.au - yes, the story has gone global - seems to know the answer to that question, with its headline: "Spoiled teen Rachel Canning takes parents to court".

Lisa Needham of the blog Happy Nice Time People has a message for Rachel.

"Many a grown person is not allowed to live under Mommy and Daddy's roof because they are terrible adult layabouts who were overindulged as children and never grew out of it, which is pretty much how you sound," she writes.

She continues:

New Jersey courts, we beg of you, do not reward this behavior or you will have parents who are now legally stuck with their horrible adult offspring standing outside your doors with pitchforks in no time.

There's more to this case than just name-calling and parents-said, daughter-said, however. In a society where a college education is usually an essential key to a successful future, do parents have an obligation to provide this for their children?

In this case in particular, if parents have already set aside money in a college fund, does that child have a claim on it?

And finally, do we really live in the kind of society in which familial arguments can turn into acrimonious court disputes in which no one is likely to come out a winner?

Wait, I already know the answer to that one.

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