Special Education Needs Can Require Private School Tuition & Tennessee Mother Not Required to Consult with Father
Judi Richardson vs. George Kevin Spanos – Special Education and Private School Tuition in Tennessee Child Support Law
This case stands for the principle that a primary residential parent may unilaterally seek the special education services a child needs, including enrollment in a private school, and compel the other parent to provide the necessary financial support, which may be in addition to the standard child support obligation.
The child at the center of this case was an 11-year old boy named Lewis, who had special education needs. His Father, Dr. George Kevin Spanos, was a physician, who had little to do with his son. The Court of Appeals noted that at the time of trial, the Father had not visited Lewis for four years, and that their last visit was an hour spent at a bowling alley.
The Child’s special needs, coupled with the lack of a parent-child relationship gave the Mother two arguments against the Father. First, that the Child had special education needs, namely “he had significant problems with ‘impulsivity’ and ‘hyperactivity’ and that he also had a language disorder.” Second, that the Father was not spending the minimum amount of time with the Child contemplated by a strict computation of child support, such that he should have to be an increased amount to the Mother for all the additional time the Child was with her. The Mother won both arguments.
In Tennessee, a child with “extraordinary educational expenses” can receive an add-on to the basic child support award, as per Tennessee Comp. Rules & Regulations section 1240-02-04-.07(2)(d). The add-on for educational expenses is determined on a case-by-case basis, and relates to the parents’ financial abilities and the lifestyle the child would have enjoyed if the parents were cohabitating.
An element of the case triggering a certain amount of attention was Dr. Spanos’ earning history and capacity. Until late 2002, the Father was employed by West Tennessee Health Care, earning $100 per hour. In 2001, the Father’s gross income was $188,502. The Father changed positions to the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital at a rate of $65 per hour for work as an emergency room physician in a rural setting.
Crediting the Father’s version of his employment history, the trial court found no ill intention on his part to avoid his child support obligation, and it lowered it from $1,587 per month to $1,078 per month. The Father’s original child support order was issued in Florida, where the Child was born. At the time the Parties met, the Father was a doctor on a cruise ship and the Mother was an entertainer. The original order also included an obligation for the Father to pay 92% of the Child’s medical and dental bills.
However, the reduction in the Father’s basic child support obligation did not reduce his overall financial responsibilities to the Child because the trial court ordered and the appellate court affirmed a 55% obligation for expenses relative to the Child’s private school tuition. Even though the Mother had not consulted with the Father prior to enrolling the Child in private school, the courts found the Mother’s decision to be reasonable, based upon both the Child’s needs and the lack of historic involvement of the Father.
Interestingly, the Court of Appeals also spread out an argument about the kinds of decisions it presumes intact families to make, who are high-income earners. In this case, the Mother earned $75,000 per year. The Court of Appeals made light that if the Parents and the Child were an operational household, it would be likely that with $160,000 the financial resources would exist for private school. The Court of Appeals saw no reason that the Child should not benefit from his Parents’ earnings, whether together or apart.
No. M2003-01139-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App., Oct. 5, 2005).
See original opinion for exact language. Legal citations omitted.
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