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Good Question: What Do Parents Legally Owe Their Kids?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — An 18-year-old New Jersey girl made headlines earlier this week when she sued her parents for not paying her college tuition.

Rachel Canning says she was kicked out of her home by her parents, but her mom and dad say their daughter left because she didn’t want to follow the rules.

On Tuesday afternoon, a judge ruled in favor of the parents. Another hearing will be held in April to decide whether Canning left home on her own.

So, when it comes to the law, what do we owe our children?

Jill Hasday, a family law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, says the law doesn’t require parents to provide their kids with everything under the sun.

“Basically, until your child is emancipated, you owe a duty to financially support them,” Hasday said. “That doesn’t mean fancy private school or any consumer good they can imagine. It means the basics.”

In most states, a child is emancipated when they join the military, get married or turn 18. One caveat to these laws is that parents are legally required to support their adult disabled children, even if the child was disabled after the age of 18.

In Minnesota, automatic emancipation happens at age 18. In New Jersey, emancipation isn’t automatic at age 18, but rather presumed.

“That’s why, in this New Jersey case, the dispute is about whether she left voluntarily or whether her parents’ conduct was so unacceptable that she had to leave,” Hasday said. “If she left voluntarily, that suggests she’s made the decision that she’s ready to support herself.”

Legally defining “the basics” for children under 18 can depend on different circumstances. For example, in child support disputes, the courts define the standard of living when the family was intact and decides what is entitled to the child.

But, for the most part, the legal standard for parental neglect is low: safe shelter, adequate food and making sure children attend school. Starting next year, Minnesota parents will be legally required to keep their kids in school until age 17, and they can be held liable if the child is truant.

Hasday says the state generally doesn’t want to intervene in the parent-child relationship unless the parents are radically unfit.

“Parents give a lot, but it’s not just the law that makes them,” she said. “The reason you give to your kids is because you want them to do well.”

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