Tenn Parent’s College Tuition Payment Limited to Reasonable Amount

Tennessee child support case law summary on college tuition costs Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Linda Sue Long Hathaway (Branstetter) vs. Glenn Jefferies Hathaway – Tennessee child support law

Tennessee Parent's Obligation for College Costs Limited to Reasonable Amount

Tennessee Parent’s Obligation for College Costs Limited to Reasonable Amount

At issue in this appeal was a single sentence from a “Marital Dissolution Agreement,” signed by the Mother, Linda Sue Long Hathaway (Branstetter), and the Father, Glenn Jefferies Hathaway, in 1987, when their children were 2 and 5 years old.  The contract provision read:  “The husband shall pay all customary and reasonable tuition expenses for the parties’ minor children in obtaining a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent.”  Based upon this language, the trial court ordered the Father, Glenn Jefferies Hathaway, to pay his daughter’s tuition, without limitation.  The Court of Appeals modified the decision.The Father was a state employee at the UT Medical center for 19 years as of the time of trial, earning approximately $50,000 per year.  His salary at the time of the divorce was $37,200.  His child support obligation was $550 per month, and the Father had a child from his second marriage.  The Father had no assets beyond $2,000 in savings.  He borrowed $7,500 from a trust fund, leaving a $400 balance in that fund.

The Parties’ daughter attended the Maryland Institute of Art, which carried a $19,800 annual tuition for the 1999-2000 academic year.  After application of scholarship and loans, the outstanding tuition was $8,973 for the freshman year.

The Court of Appeals relied on judicial precedent to interpret the Parties’ contract language as having an implied limitation on the college costs as would be “reasonable.”  In doing so, the Court created a fact-intensive standard, creating a standard that would require parents to set forth their income and assets, as well as their financial circumstances at the time of entering into the contract.

The Court of Appeals set about to determine what would constitute “reasonable” college expenses to the facts and circumstances of this particular family, noting “Courts must consider the practical results of their decisions, and not inflexibly apply a rule with no thought to the consequences.”  Given particular weight was the Father’s lengthy tenure as a state employee, which the court reasons created a “fairly predictable” income and earning capacity at the time of the divorce that carried through to the time of trial.

With the Father’s income and employment history in mind, the Court of Appeals fashioned guidelines for the trial court to recalculate the Father’s contribution, limited to Tennessee or Florida state universities, whichever was higher.  The Mother and daughter were living in Florida, eligible for in-state tuition rates.  The Father, as a state employee, was eligible for a substantial tuition discount at the University of Tennessee.  These figures would then be applied to a college of the daughter’s choice, as a limitation to the Father’s financial contribution.

No. E2002-00659-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. of App. 2002).

See original opinion for exact language.  Legal citations omitted.

For more information, see College Tuition & Costs 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.

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