Deviation from Tennessee Child Support Guidelines for Private School Tuition: In re Andrea A.R.

Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of Child. After separating several years after Child’s birth, the trial court established paternity, a residential co-parenting schedule, and Father’s child support obligation. The trial court also ordered Father to pay Child’s private school tuition, which would be a deviation in the child support worksheets and would be in addition to the normal child support obligation. Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court vacated the trial court’s judgment.

Father argued that the trial court erred in (1) assessing private school tuition as an extraordinary educational expense without finding that private schooling was appropriate based upon the parents’ financial abilities and the lifestyle of the child if the parents were living together, and (2) failing to articulate that Father had the ability to pay the full amount of tuition in addition to the child support.

Tennessee courts may order a deviation from the amount of support if the deviation complies with the requirements of the Child Support Guidelines, and the amount or method of such deviation is within the discretion of the tribunal. However, the trial court is required to state in its order the basis for the deviation and the amount the child support order would have been without the deviation. In deviating from the Guidelines, primary consideration must be given to the best interest of the child for whom support under these Guidelines is being determined.

The Child Support Guidelines also state that when making its determination regarding a request for deviation the trial court:

[S]hall consider all available income of the parents as defined by this chapter and shall make a written finding that an amount of child support other than the amount calculated under the Guidelines is reasonably necessary to provide for the needs of the minor child or children for whom support is being determined in the case immediately under consideration.

The Child Support Guidelines further provide that additional support for private school expenses should be calculated separately and should be added to the basic child support award. They also provide that these expenses should be considered on a case-by-case basis and that the courts should also consider whether the private elementary or secondary schooling is “appropriate to the parents’ financial abilities and to the lifestyle of the child if the parents and the child were living together.”

The Court held:

The extraordinary educational expense guideline mandates that the trial court shall, first, consider “whether the private elementary or secondary schooling ‘is appropriate to the parents’ financial abilities and the to the lifestyle of the child if the parents and the child were living together.'” If the court finds private schooling is appropriate, then the trial court is required to calculate the extraordinary education expenses separately and add them to the base child support award. The record before us reveals that the trial court did not make the required factual determinations that private schooling was appropriate, based upon the facts of this case. . . .

For the foregoing reasons, the upward deviation [] for school tuition is reversed and this issue is remanded to the trial court to make the requisite findings to determine, inter alia, whether private schooling for the child is appropriate based upon the facts of this case. If the court finds that private schooling is appropriate, then it shall determine who pays what portion of the private school tuition and costs attendant thereto.

The case was remanded to the trial court for the necessary factual findings.

In re Andrea A.R. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, February 7, 2012).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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