Adult children suing parents for child support: Frivolous lawsuit or logical extension of the law?

By now, everyone must have read the news articles about Rachel Canning, the 18-year-old New Jersey woman who is suing her parents to require them to continue to pay her private school tuition, and also to pay her tuition and living expenses while she attends college. Public reaction generally has been indignant. People are outraged that a court would even entertain the idea of requiring parents to pay for their adult children’s living expenses and postsecondary education. Many are outraged that the judge has only partially dismissed the suit. Why didn’t he just dismiss the whole thing, they wonder.

What many people do not know is that New Jersey and a growing number of states  (Alabama, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah and Washington) have enacted laws that either authorize or require courts to order a noncustodial parent to pay a child’s college expenses, as part of the parent’s “child support” obligation. So far, these laws have only authorized it as a form of relief in a divorce or other legal proceeding that has been brought for the purpose of resolving a dispute between parents. This is the first case of which I am aware where an adult child has sued parents for this kind of ongoing “child” support.

Child support is usually described as a “child’s right.” It is paid to the custodial parent because children do not have the legal capacity to manage their own affairs. The law assumes that an adult with legal responsibility for the child will use the money to take care of the child. If a minor child is abandoned by both parents, and they are capable of supporting her, the state or a court-appointed guardian may take legal action against the parents to compel them to support their child. In these cases (and except when the state is seeking reimbursement for welfare expenditures), the state or the guardian is asserting, on the child’s behalf, the right of the child to be supported by her parents.

If child support is a child’s right, and if a state’s laws extend a parent’s child support obligation to include paying for college education and living expenses, then it makes perfectly logical sense to permit an eighteen-year-old child (who has now attained an age where she is legally capable of initiating legal proceedings on her own behalf) to use the courts to enforce that right.

Why do people become outraged if a court considers ordering married parents to pay for an adult child’s college education, but think nothing of — and in fact, through their legislators, require or encourage — court-ordered parental responsibility for the same kind of expense when the parent in question is a divorced or never-married one? The initial pleading in Rachel Canning’s case does not make an Equal Protection argument, but a pretty good one could be made. What legitimate state interest is served by discriminating against divorced and unwed parents with respect to a financial obligation of this magnitude? There is none. That being the case, it is only logical that an adult child should be able to sue her parents, whether they are unmarried or married, for her college costs and living expenses while attending college.

Rachel Canning’s argument is not a frivolous one under New Jersey law. If people are unhappy with it, then they should ask their legislatures to take a second look at this whole business of ordering parents to pay for things their children want even after they have grown up and left home.

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