Payment for Private School Tuition Overturned

Sometimes, during a divorce, parents agree to pay for private school tuition for the children.  There’s no problem with that, except that later on when incomes change and the cost of tuition skyrockets, this can be a real burden.  The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently considered a case where a father was ordered by a Trial Court to pay for private school tuition for a school he didn’t want his daughter to attend, at double the cost of the school where he thought the child should be enrolled.

Background

The parties were actually divorced in Alabama in 2007.  At the time, they had come to an agreement regarding the division of their property and the parenting schedule for their two daughters.  In 2012, the mother and the two children moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The agreed parenting plan included a provision that said the parties would equally divide the costs of private school, upon agreement of the parties.

In 2016, the parents had a disagreement about which school the older daughter would attend.  The father wanted the child to continue to attend a private catholic school (his preference was Notre Dame High School), but the mother preferred Girls Preparatory School (“GPS”).  Because the parties couldn’t agree and time was short, the mother signed the child up for the 2016-2017 school year at GPS over father’s objection.

Father refused to pay the school tuition, and mother filed suit in a Tennessee court to modify the agreement and compel the father to pay half of the tuition for GPS.

The Trial Court, after hearing all the evidence, decided that it was in the best interests of the child to attend GPS, even though the tuition was about double the amount of Notre Dame High School.  The Court’s solution was to order the father to pay an amount equal to the entire tuition of Notre Dame, and mother would pay the rest of it.

Father appealed.

Appellate Court Follows the Divorce Agreement

Both the mother and father testified at trial, and even though their relationship was pretty acrimonious, there were certain things they agreed were true:

  • Prior to the divorce, the parties wanted the children to attend Catholic school.
  • The agreed parenting plan gave the parents joint decision making authority over educational decisions.
  • Father objected to the child’s enrollment in GPS due to the tuition expense and on religious grounds.
  • The divorce agreement contained the following language:  “The parties shall each pay one-half (50%) of all private school tuition, school supplies, fees, extra-curricular expenses, school trips, sport activities, graduation expenses, and any and all other school or extracurricular expenses incurred on behalf of the minor children of the parties, which expenses have been mutually agreed upon in advance of incurring the same.”

The Appellate Court pointed out that while the Trial Court technically didn’t give the mother what she wanted (force father to pay 50% of the GPS admission), they did order father to pay the entire amount of Notre Dame High School tuition, which was $11,427.00.  Since the tuition to GPS was $23,450.00, that left father paying about 49% of the tuition for a school he didn’t want his child to attend.

The Appellate Court disagreed and said their review of the evidence was more in favor of the father’s contention.

Mother unilaterally enrolled the older child in a non- Catholic, private high school, GPS, thus precluding Father from the joint decision- making process. Because Father was foreclosed from participating in the decision to enroll the older child at GPS, we conclude that he should not be made to pay tuition above what was contemplated in the [previous] Parenting Plan. … Mother acted unilaterally in enrolling the older child at GPS; this was a clear violation of the parties’ agreement. Therefore, we conclude that Father should be ordered to pay one-half of the Notre Dame High School tuition, i.e. $5,713.50 for the 2016-2017 school year, and then one-half of the annual Notre Dame High School tuition going forward unless and until Mother and Father jointly agree to enroll the child in another school.

Conclusion

It wasn’t that long ago that the parent who had the children for the majority of the time was in control of everything.  Fortunately, the time when one parent was relegated to visitation only every other weekend, had no say in the decisions for the children, but still expected to pay to support them is getting farther and farther behind us.  The courts are getting better at making sure the parents share in the responsibility and decision making for their children.  Some parents handle better than others, unfortunately.

The language of your parenting plan in important and can sometimes have effects beyond what you expect.  You need an experienced lawyer on your side who can help make sure your parenting plan will work best for your unique situation.  If you need a change or improvement to your parenting schedule, contact me to find out how I can help you.

Would you like to read this case for yourself?  There’s much more in it.  I only wrote about one of the many issues.  Pua-Vines v. Vines