What are the Limits of the Best Interest of the Child Standard?

This guest post is from Joi Brown, Regent 3L and current Family Law student:

Restoring and strengthening families may often be the objective of a court, as when a child is involved courts are charged with making a determination that is in the best interests of the child.  This week a 21-year-old New Jersey woman recently sued her estranged parents for payment of her college tuition.  Under New Jersey law, divorced parents are responsible for paying part of their child’s college tuition.  The woman’s parents divorced when she was a toddler and have co-parented her since.  She filed the suit against her parents in 2013 after she moved out of the family home and into the home of her paternal grandparents, who are supporting her and paying her attorney’s fees.  A New Jersey judge recently ruled in favor of the young woman and ordered her parents to pay $16,000 per year toward her tuition at Temple University, an out-of-state school.  Her parents are appealing the decision.

Although parenting does not end when a child turns 18, this case may be setting challenging precedent.  At what point is the Court stepping in and making decisions that should be left up to parents?  States have long allowed parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and parenting of their children.  Those parental rights are balanced against the best interest of the child standard, as described in a more detailed manner at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1957143 which outlines the American roots of the best interest of the child doctrine.  Another observation may be that a family that requested court intervention for divorce has already lost a great deal of family strength and harmony.  A further question might be at what point does the best interest of a child no longer play an important role in a parent’s decisions regarding that child?  This case indicates that in some states, it may be long after the child turns 18 and becomes emancipated automatically by operation of law.  

Another alarming question that arises is what limit is placed on these parental obligations once a child has left home or turned 18?  Can a rebellious teen break house rules, defy parents, and even leave the family home and then demand financial support from her parents to do so?  This was the situation in another case in which another New Jersey girl sued her parents for payment of college tuition and financial support.  That suit was eventually settled and the girl returned home.  That may have been a family restored.  The trend toward payment of a child who has left home seems to undermine the sanctity of the family unit as well as parental autonomy and tells children that if they do not like parental rules, they may not have to follow those rules, yet their parents will still be obligated to provide financial support.

This begs the ultimate question.  Is this week's case holding really in the best interest of the child?  This case has put three generations of a family at odds.  As the cliché goes, there are two sides to every story, but no matter which side is the true story, both sides have lost.  Their family is not only weakened, but may be all the more difficult to repair for the future.  They have lost something that no amount of money could ever replace. 



  1. This is a fascinating case! As an advocate for upholding the "Best Interests of the Child" doctrine and ensuring we give all children the greatest chance they can have at not only being successful but a responsible adult in society, I think this trend in New Jersey law is dangerous and fostering a culture of codependency. A child is automatically emancipated and seen and treated as an adult as soon as they reach the age of 18. Further, this newly emancipated adult expects to be given all of the liberties and rights that this emancipation from their childhood restrictions entails. Part of this new freedom includes being liable for their own debts and further advancement in life. I personally believe that parents should do everything within their power to continue to aid in this transition into adulthood but every family situation, including its ability and means to help, is different. The court has cracked open a door that has traditionally been closed and may have taken away the right of families to rear and release their children without unnecessary judicial interference with the turning of the door knob.

  2. Great post Joi! This is a scary decision in determining the balance between that which is in the best interests of the child and parents' Constitutionally protected right to direct the upbringing of that child. I echo your fears for whether this really was in a child's best interest, not only for the reasons that you highlight, but for the fact that such a decision perpetuates the lie that all problems can be solved with money. Even if the parents lose their appeal, and their daughter gets her yearly tuition money, a rift will have been created between her and her parents, and her parents and her grandparents, that no amount of money can fill. So she may end up with an inexpensive degree (at least from her perspective), but at what cost?

  3. I think this problem brings the question as to when a court should (or can) begin to look not to the best interests of the child, but to the best interests of the family. Unquestionably, the best interest of the child doctrine is well established. However, this situation shows that sometimes, the best interests of that child are not in the best interests of the family as a whole. I hate to say this, but I feel that the culture of out nation's youth today is becoming increasingly self-obsessed. I know it may be a stretch as an argument, but with the new selfish trend, could this decision and the best interest doctrine give children the ability to merely get what they want so long as an argument can be made that what they want is in their best interests? Though I am not sure at what point it could be applicable, I think that there comes a time in which a court should be looking more towards the best interests of the family and not necessarily just the child.