Earlier this year, a New Jersey teenager (“Rachel”) made national headlines because she sued her parents, requesting that they pay for her private school, living expenses, and college tuition. Rachel claimed that her parents had kicked her out of the house, abandoning her, and refused to pay for any of her school costs. At the time of the lawsuit, Rachel was living with a friend and the friend’s parents. Rachel’s parents said that Rachel left home voluntarily because she did not want to obey their rules.
When the news of this lawsuit broke, plenty was said about Rachel and her parents and most of the comments were not pleasant. While the media did its best to demonize this family, little was said about the law that Rachel was relying upon to sue her parents. Ultimately, Rachel withdrew the suit against her parents.
What if Rachel and her family lived in New York and Rachel sued here? What would Rachel’s rights be to sue her parents for child support in New York?
In New York, a parent has a duty to support a child until that child’s 21st birthday. There are exceptions to this, such as if the child is married, joins the military, or is over the age of 18 and employed full-time. Assuming that none of the exceptions apply to Rachel, she is entitled to child support from her parents as long she is under the age of 21. Even if Rachel is 18 and spends her day loafing around on the couch, her parents have an obligation to support her. A parent may feel she is in a “no man’s land.” The child isn’t doing anything bad, he’s just not doing anything, and the parents still have to support him.
But what if Rachel moves out of her parents’ home because does not like their motto of “our house, our rules”? Even worse, what if Rachel is living at home, staying out until all hours, bringing anyone home she pleases, using drugs, etc.? Do Rachel’s parents still have an obligation to support her? Based on this example, Rachel’s parents could argue that Rachel is “constructively emancipated” and that she is not entitled to child support. “Constructive emancipation” is a legal doctrine in which the law treats a child, although under the age of 21, as emancipated from her parents. In order to prove constructive emancipation applies, Rachel’s parents must show that Rachel:
- is of “employable age,”
- that Rachel left home voluntarily, without cause or parental permission, and;
- that Rachel left for the purpose of avoiding parental discipline and control.
If Rachel’s parents can prove (1) through (3) above, then Rachel will be deemed to have forfeited her right to child support from her parents.
Constructive emancipation is a sophisticated concept and it takes good lawyering to successfully prove that this doctrine applies to a particular situation. Unfortunately, as we saw from the New Jersey case, constructive emancipation cases can tear families apart and damage the relationship between the parents and the child.