Private School Tuition in Tennessee Child Support Laws

Whether private school tuition will be added to a Tennessee child support obligation depends on whether one or both parents earn adequate income, a child has a special education need, or a child is already enrolled in private schools prior to divorce.

Private school tuition can be ordered in addition to Tennessee child support.

Private school tuition can be ordered in addition to Tennessee child support.

Private School Tuition Can Be Court Ordered

Any discussion of financial support for children, including a conversation about private school tuition must begin with Tennessee child support law essentials.  No matter the topic, one must begin with the formula computation of each parent’s child support obligation, including capture of the full extent of each parent’s income.  Until this mandatory base child support calculation has been performed, one cannot move on to consider anything else.

In the Tennessee child support guidelines, private school tuition comes under the heading of an “extraordinary educational expense” that can trigger an upward deviation from a base child support award.  The standard child support computation takes into consideration that a child will attend public school.  When a parent requests a private school contribution from the other parent, it is a request for moneys in addition to or in excess of the base child support computation.

Tennessee Treats Private School Tuition as Extraordinary Education Expenses

According to the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines, “extraordinary education expenses” includes, for example, tuition, room and board, fees, books, and other expenses associated with private elementary or secondary schooling and/or associated with special needs education.  Such costs are reduced by any scholarships, grants, stipends, or other cost-reducing programs award to or received by the child to offset costs of attendance.

A primary residential parent has the authority to make educational decisions on behalf of the child, and even has the authority to enroll a child in a private school without seeking or obtaining the other parent’s consent.  The primary residential parent can incur expenses of private school tuition, and turn to the court to obligate the other parent to contribute to those expenses.

And where a child lives at a private school at any point through grade 12, the child is deemed to be living in the primary residential parent’s household for child support purposes.

The equation is not all within the control of the primary residential parent, however, as the courts will determine the private school tuition contribution of the other parent based upon each parent’s income.  The courts will look also to the primary residential parent’s income when considering the upward deviation to the child support obligation of the other parent.

The ability of the courts to consider the income of the primary residential parent when setting the contribution of the secondary residential parent to private school tuition was created by the case of Robert McAlister Barnett, III vs. Paula Lynn Barnett, 27 S.W.3d 904, decided by the Supreme Court of Tennessee in 2000.  The non-custodial parent was a doctor, paying $3,700 per month in child support based on $209,206 in gross income.  Already $700 per month of that child support award was to be set aside into a trust fund for the child’s college education.

In a thorough discussion of the authority of the court to require a parent to pay “extraordinary” sums towards private school tuition in addition to the mandatory child support award, the Supreme Court concluded that consideration of both parents’ incomes would best achieve the equity intended by the Child Support Guidelines.  A central goal of the Guidelines and court decisions like Barnett is to achieve the economic benefits for children that they would have enjoyed if the parents were living together.  The Barnett decision did caution against the wholesale imposition of a private school tuition on the non-custodial parent, however, lest it be “unjust or inappropriate” to balancing the economics of the household of each parent.

While it is not a requirement for the primary residential parent to either consult with or justify the selection of a private school, it is worth noting some situations in which the Tennessee courts have commented in favor of private school enrollment.  One situation is a child with special educational needs.  Another situation is a child with special classroom and support structure to meet emotional and behavioral needs.

Interpretations of Private School Tuition Pursuant to Tennessee Child Support Laws

One case that well illustrates all of these principles is the case of Judi Richardson vs. George Kevin Spanos, No. M2003-01139-COA-R3-CV, a 2005 Tennessee Court of Appeals case.  The parents had an 11-year old boy, who evidenced developmental challenges and learning disabilities.  He was enrolled in private schools from the time he entered kindergarten.  The boy was moved through several different private schools and additional testing until finally he was enrolled at Currey Ingram Academy (Nashville), an educational setting offering individualized programs for students.

The father in the case was a physician with a basic child support obligation of $1,314 per month.  While the private school tuition was not set forth in the reported case, the decision of the court was to require the father to pay 55% of the private school tuition.  The court noted that the combined income of the parents was $160,000, and that the father’s income was $65 per hour (annualized at $135,000 per year).

The Richardson decision and others tell us that private school tuition court decisions are determined on a case-by-case basis and are a fact-intensive process.  Each parent can expect to present information about their income, earnings history, education, and assets during the course of the proceeding.  The principals of these and other court decisions have become part of the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines and are now the required analysis in all cases involving applications for contribution to private or special needs education.

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