COLUMN-Are you on the hook for your child's college tuition?

Thu Mar 6, 2014 3:05pm EST

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By Liz Weston

LOS ANGELES, March 6 (Reuters) - A college degree is increasingly seen as a key to success in the 21st century. Does that mean parents have to pay for it?

Last month a New Jersey teenager estranged from her parents filed a lawsuit seeking living and schooling costs from them. The case has focused attention on the question of whether parents - even those who are not divorced or separated - owe their children a higher education.

New Jersey is among the states that have gone furthest in deciding that they do. In 1982 the state's supreme court ruled that college can be considered a necessity. Subsequent court cases and New Jersey state laws have established that financially capable parents in divorce cases can be required to help pay for college, family law experts say.

"New Jersey is very progressive," said Brian Schwartz, an attorney in Summit, New Jersey, and chairman of the New Jersey State Bar Association's family law section. "Thirty years ago our Supreme Court said  that college is no longer just for the wealthy and elite."

Several other states have laws or legal precedents that allow child support orders to include money for higher education.

But a few states have gone the other way. California and New Hampshire are among those with laws that limit divorced parents' obligations to pay for higher education.

Most states do not require parents to pay for college, but they typically enforce divorce agreements that obligate a parent to cover higher education costs.

Even in progressive New Jersey, Rachel Canning's lawsuit against her parents could set a precedent, since current laws do not address the obligations of intact families.

Without a divorce, there is a constitutional right "to raise your child as you see fit, as long as there isn't abuse or neglect," said Jeralyn Lawrence, a lawyer with Norris McLaughlin & Marcus in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and chairwoman-elect of the bar association's family law section.

Those rights were affirmed in a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Troxel v. Granville, about a case regarding grandparent visitation rights, when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that "the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children  is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court."

FINANCIAL AID ISSUE

Canning, 18, left her family home in Lincoln Park, New Jersey, in October. She says she was kicked out; her parents say she left because she refused to follow household rules. Two weeks ago she filed a lawsuit in an effort to get her parents to pay for her living costs, tuition at the Catholic high school where she is a senior and her future college expenses.

Canning lost the first round this week, when a judge ruled her parents did not have to pay emergency support or an overdue tuition bill. The judge said he would rule on other issues, including college costs, next month.

If Canning's parents were divorcing, a judge would use 12 factors established in the 1982 Newburgh v. Arrigo decision to determine their responsibility for contributing toward a college education, Lawrence said.

Those include a parent's background, values, goals and ability to pay, according to the opinion written by Justice Stewart Pollock. He also cited the child's aptitude and relationship to the parent, "including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance."

Courts step into decisions that would normally be made by the parents to prevent the children from becoming casualties of a breakup or having their educations used as a bargaining chip in the divorce, Schwartz said.

Even in states that obligate divorced parents to pay for college, parents with intact marriages can refuse to help or insist their offspring pay their own way.

However, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz said a parent's unwillingness to pay for college can severely handicap a child's ability to get help elsewhere.

Federal and private financial aid formulas typically use the parents' income and assets to determine need. A parent who is able to pay but refuses to can prevent a child from getting any need-based aid, said Kantrowitz, who publishes the education resource site Edvisors Network ().

Kantrowitz said he often gets emails and calls from students who have left home "voluntarily or involuntarily" and whose parents refuse to pay for college.

"I often encourage the student to talk with their college financial aid administrator, since sometimes the aid administrator can address the parents' concerns without bringing up an emotional context," Kantrowitz said. "But often these issues can't be reconciled."

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