21-Year-Old Sues Parents for College Tuition — and Wins

Rachel Bertsche
·Writer
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Caitlyn Ricci. Photo via Facebook. 

Two parents battling over college tuition for their estranged daughter were back in court this week. 

A judge reaffirmed his order on Monday that Maura McGarvey and Michael Ricci pay 21-year-old Caitlyn Ricci’s community college tuition.

Caitlyn Ricci brought the suit against her parents in August 2013, suing them for $906 in tuition to Rowan College in Pennsylvania, according to The Inquirer. A few months later, a judge ruled in her favor. On Monday, he upheld his decision, ordering the parents to pay by the end of the year.

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But all is not settled: In October, Caitlyn Ricci also sued her parents for another $16,000 in tuition from Philadelphia’s Temple University, where she is currently a student. In October, a judge ruled in her favor, but Michael Ricci and McGarvey are planning to appeal, saying their daughter didn’t apply for all eligible loans and scholarships, The Inquirer reported. McGarvey is raising funds for the appeal through a GoFundme account.

McGarvey, an English teacher, and Michael Ricci, a high school basketball coach, are divorced and have each remarried and have younger children. The New Jersey-based parents say they can’t afford out-of-state college tuition.

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Relations have been strained between Caitlyn Ricci and her parents for some time. In February, 2013, Caitlyn Ricci moved in with her grandparents. The reason for the move is in debate: McGarvey told the court her daughter left because she was asked to do chores and follow a curfew, and also because she had drinking problems. Caitlyn Ricci said she left in part over a dispute about summer classes, according to The Inquirer.

In a November post on her blog, McGarvey wrote about her daughter’s alleged problems with alcohol abuse, and explained that she set strict rules if her daughter was going to live at home: “This plan included a full-time job, household chores, a curfew, and for her to register for three summer classes,” she writes. “The only part of our plan that she had a problem with was the three summer classes. She chose to move out of my house instead of following the rules we established. She packed her things, and moved into her paternal grandparent’s house.”

Andrew Rochester, Caitlyn Ricci’s attorney, disputes the claim that Caitlyn moved out of her own accord. “Caitlyn did not voluntarily leave the home. She was thrown out by her mother,” he told WPVI-TV in Philadelphia. Rochester did not respond to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment. 

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McGarvey continues in the post, which she called “The Age of Entitlement”: “I was very clear with Caitlyn about what [moving out] would mean for her – her father would no longer be required to pay child support, I would no longer have the money to help her pay for college, etc. More than once, I told her that she could come home.  She didn’t want to.  She wanted to live without any rules, with basically no contact with either of her parents or their families, and she wanted her father and I to pay for it. Within a few months of living at her grandparents, Caitlyn retained a lawyer and sued her father and me for college contribution (and a new car.)”

These facts are in dispute, and the judge is encouraging the family to come to some sort of resolution, according to The Inquirer. “I love that child more than anything,” McGarvey told the court. “But she only wants the money.”

Caitlyn Ricci disagreed: “It’s not about the money. I want to go to college.”

“Caitlyn truly is a good girl,” her lawyer told the Washington Post in November. “She just wants to go to college. That’s all she wants. She wants to go to college. For whatever reason, mom and dad have a different view on that, I guess.”

New Jersey case precedent established that financially capable divorced parents should contribute to the tuition of qualified students. “It varies state by state, but generally, when people get divorced and they have kids that aren’t in college, they determine what their obligations are for college expenses,” Nicole Onorato, a family law attorney at Katz & Stefani in Chicago, tells Yahoo Parenting. “If the court orders at the time of the divorce – or at the time the kid is ready for college – that parents have to contribute, a kid can ask the court to enforce that.”

Though Onorato hasn’t seen the original divorce agreement between Michael Ricci and McGarvey, she says she’s not surprised the court ruled in favor of Caitlyn Ricci. “States see their obligations to children as primary,” she says. “If you have a kid who is serious about college education, I would imagine these cases will usually fall in favor of the children.”

Onorato says she expects to see more of these cases come up as college tuition rises. “We’re talking about 20, 30, 40 grand a year,” she says. “For some people that will be a big burden. As the cost of tuition skyrockets, there will be more people who are unable to meet that obligation and the ripple effect will be more kids suing parents for college since they cant afford it on their own.”

Despite the contentious courtroom drama, both sides have voiced their desire that their family be whole again. The lawyer, Rochester, told the Washington Post that Caitlyn Ricci “desperately wants her family back.”

In her blog post, McGarvey said something similar: “I want to help support Caitlyn, not just financially, but in every way a mother supports her child. I love my daughter, and want only what is best for her.”

This isn’t the first time a child has sued their parents over tuition. In February of this year, 18-year-old Rachel Canning, also of New Jersey, took her parents to court to pay for her college, but ended up dropping her suit.