Is Private School Tuition an Extraordinary Educational Expense in Tennessee Child Support Law?
Barnett v. Barnett – Supreme Court of Tennessee decides private school tuition can be awarded as child support.
Paula Lynn Barnett (the Mother) and Robert McAlister Barnett, III (the Father) were divorced in 1986 after a fourteen-year marriage. At the time of the divorce, the parties’ son, Joshua, was three years old and their daughter, Katie, was an infant. The divorce decree required the Father to pay $2,167 per month in child support for both children. In March, 1996, Ms. Barnett filed a petition to modify the child support award. Based on the Father’s gross income of $209,206, the trial court set child support at $3,700 per month but ordered the Mother to pay private school tuition from that support award. The trial court found that the son’s tuition at a private school, was an extraordinary educational expense but ruled that the tuition be paid by the Mother from the $3,000 monthly child support.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling. That court held that extraordinary education expenses must be added to the percentage of net income required by the guidelines to be paid by the obligor parent, in this case, the Father. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court and asked that an additional amount of support be paid by the Father based upon the extraordinary educational expenses. The father requested an appeal and the Supreme Court found in the Mother’s favor. The Supreme Court held that: (1) private school tuition is an “extraordinary educational expense” that must be added to the obligor’s child support percentage calculated under the guidelines, and (2) adding the entire amount of private school tuition to father’s child support percentage was not unjust or inappropriate, and thus, downward deviation was not warranted.
The amount of child support to be paid by parents is based on the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines and is a flat percentage of each parent’s net income. This number, however, is a minimum and the Guidelines provide room for the courts to deviate and determine a larger award in certain cases. In this case, the court used the provision in the Guidelines which says that “extraordinary educational expenses….shall be added to the percentage…” Furthermore, the Supreme Court held that the use of the word “shall” means that the court has no discretion in the matter and must include all additional schooling expenses in the award the Father paid. The Supreme Court concluded that private school tuition is an “extraordinary educational expense” because it exceeds the cost of public schooling and therefore must be added to the amount of child support paid by the Father.
The Supreme Court also found that there was no room in this particular case to make an exception to the rule that extra educational expenses be paid by the obligor parent. The Guidelines say that the court can make an exception if following the Guidelines results in a child support award that is unjust or inappropriate. However, the court may deviate from the Guidelines if it’s in the best interest of the children or in order to be fair to both sides. For example, if adding on extra school tuition for only the non-custodial parent means he or she is paying a higher percentage of net income than the other parent, maybe even to the point of using all of their income, this would be unfair. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that it was fair to impose the full private school tuition on the Father since his income was $209,000 and the Mother’s income was $28,000.
An interesting question raised by the Supreme Court was whether the Father agreed to send the son to private school. The Mother claimed that the Father agreed to send the son to private school when he signed a “preliminary application” for the school. It’s clear from records from the trial court, however, that the Father did not approve of the enrollment and stated that he would not assist with the tuition. And in fact, the trial court did not find that the parties had agreed on this matter. However, the Supreme Court held that the trial court implicitly found that the Father agreed to assume responsibility for the private school expenses.
27 S.W.3d 904 (Tenn. 2000).
See original opinion for exact language. Legal citations omitted.
For more information, see Private School Tuition in Tennessee Child Support Laws and Tennessee Child Support Answers to FAQ’s. For legal updates, news, analysis, and commentary, visit our Tennessee Family Law Blog and its Child Support category. A Memphis child support attorney from the Miles Mason Family Law Group can help you with Tennessee child support issues including setting or modifying child support. To schedule your confidential consultation about Tennessee child support, call us today at (901) 683-1850.