Are Parents Obliged to Pay for College?

Strangely, it may depend on whether they’re divorced.

Photo by Audrey with Wikis Take Philadelphia/Wikimedia Commons
“Temple University welcomes you and your family.”

Photo by Audrey with Wikis Take Philadelphia/Wikimedia Commons

Can a young adult force her parents to pay for the cost of her college education?

Maybe, but fair warning: If you try, you might be met with death threats. Just ask Caitlyn Ricci, who has wrung $16,000 out of her divorced mom and dad and has inspired broad outrage in suddenly nervous parents and throughout the Internet. That’s how much a New Jersey trial judge recently commanded the couple to cough up toward Caitlyn’s costs for attending Philadelphia’s Temple University.

Everyone has a visceral reaction to this case, and it’s easy to see why. First, there are the lurid details of this story. Caitlyn left her mother’s house early last year. Whether she was kicked out or decided to leave is disputed, but the next time either parent heard from her was several months later, when they were hauled into court. In the meantime, she’d been taken in by her paternal grandparents, who are funding the lawsuit. (Not surprisingly, Caitlyn’s dad, Michael Ricci, has “zero respect” for his parents.) Oh, and Caitlyn’s lawsuit also demanded that her parents help her pay for a new car. (Denied.) There’s also the small matter of some $906 that Caitlyn claims was supposed to have been paid to her last year, a number that the parents dispute. That’s the subject of another upcoming hearing. Get the popcorn.

But the story raises deeper issues. What obligations should parents have once children reach the age of majority? With the costs of college rising to absurd levels, should parents who can afford to kick in some cash be forced to do so? And if so, should it matter that there were cheaper schools available? Should the law care whether the family is intact? (It does, as we’ll see.) And should the undeniable fact that the parents and the young adult are estranged from each other affect the obligation?

Some background will be helpful. Fathers—and, more recently, mothers—have long had an enforceable duty to support their kids during childhood. But with the exception of disabled children, that obligation usually ceases at the age of majority. Until recently, 21 was that age. But things changed—problematically for college students—when the 26th Amendment was ratified in 1971. By terms, the law only lowered the voting age to 18—but as a practical matter, it led to making 18- to 20-year-olds adults for all purposes (except for drinking and running for federal offices, which may or may not be connected).

The law zipped through the ratification process in record time (three months!), so presumably state legislators gave little thought to the possible impact on parental obligations. But the amendment came at a bad time for students who wanted support for their higher education: The number of 18- to 24-year-olds attending college more than doubled from 1970 to 2010. The upshot: Parental obligations ceased just as the need for post-secondary education took hold as a national norm.

So why shouldn’t parents have to pony up what they can? Isn’t doing so a good investment, and a better way to help your kids than the historically common way of doing so—through inheritance?

Maybe, yet states have held firm to the rule that the obligation to support your kids ends at the age of majority, whatever that happens to be. Unless, that is, the parents of the young adult seeking support happen to be divorced or never married. In such cases, about one-half the states—including New Jersey—sometimes make the non-custodial parent pay for college or other post-high school education. (Not for other stuff, like the car Caitlyn wanted.)

Usually it’s the custodial parent who sues the non-custodial parent for support. But increasingly, as in the sad case of Caitlyn Ricci and her parents, custody and support obligations are more complex. That’s why this case pits daughter against both parents. In a bizarre twist on The Parent Trap (the one with Hayley Mills, please!), the case has united the parents, divorced for some 17 years, in anger and opposition to their ingrate offspring.*

What justifies making a distinction between intact families and broken ones? Aren’t kids in both families in need of scholarship scratch? That’s what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court thought, in a 1995 decision that declared that state’s law authorizing college contributions by divorced parents only to be an unconstitutional denial of equality. But the Keystone State stands alone in this regard. (Michael Ricci and Maura McGarvey, Caitlyn’s mom, probably wish they lived on the other side of the Delaware River.) Most states find these laws perfectly acceptable, because the statistics consistently show that divorce leads to disengagement from kids’ lives, and that parents who would otherwise pay for college do so less frequently after marriages crumble. So the laws have a rational basis, and that’s enough.

I don’t think this intact vs. broken family distinction is going to hold much longer, though, and in fact decisions like this point the way forward for all young adults to force their parents to cough up college cash. Combine an angry 19-year-old and a creative attorney, and we’re going to get some variation of the argument that “age is just a number.” The real question, they’ll say, is whether the young adult is in fact emancipated—not whether some arbitrary age has been attained. Given today’s texting-while-hovering parents and the impossibility of kids paying for their own college education, a broad ruling that majority doesn’t equal emancipation seems inevitable. And if no emancipation, the support obligation continues.

OK, but why Temple? Why not a cheaper school? Say, one in her home state of New Jersey, where she’d get in-state tuition? It’s a good question, but courts have generally preferred to look at each case individually and not to generally require that every kid choose the least expensive option. Otherwise, it would be community college for all—a result McGarvey and the older Ricci might welcome, especially since they have a combined five younger kids from their second marriages to consider. But since kids in intact marriages don’t always have to choose the cheapest option, neither do the offspring of divorced parents.

This isn’t over. The judge has ordered the parties back for a conference this coming Monday, presumably to get them to settle this ugly thing. And the parents’ attorneys raise issues that might get an appellate court’s attention if the case can’t be resolved. Can a young adult spurn contact with her parents while still claiming she is not emancipated? Can she force parents to pay for an expensive college that neither one of them even knew she was interested in?

Well, at the very least the parents can see an end to this family nightmare after college, right? Not necessarily. There’s at least one case—yes, from New Jersey—in which a court ordered a parent to contribute to his child’s law school education. The chains of filial obligation can be hard to snap.

Correction, Dec. 5, 2014: This article originally misspelled Hayley Mills’ first name. (Return.