Private School Tuition Disputed in Chattanooga, Tennessee Child-Support Case: Pua-Vines v. Vines

Facts: Mother and Father are the divorced parents of two daughters.

Their parenting plan provides for joint decision-making authority and says:

The parties shall each pay one-half (50%) of all private school tuition, school supplies, fees, extracurricular expenses, school trips, sports activities, graduation expenses, and any and all other school or extracurricular expenses incurred on behalf of the children, which expenses have been mutually agreed upon in advance of incurring the same.

Years later, Mother petitioned to hold Father in contempt for failing to pay his share of the oldest child’s private school tuition.

Father responded that Mother enrolled the oldest child at Girls Preparatory School (GPS) without obtaining his agreement. Instead, Father wanted the child to attend Notre Dame High School, a private, Catholic high school in Chattanooga.

Mother admitted enrolling the older child at GPS but said she did so because Father “unreasonably” withheld his approval, thereby forcing Mother to act unilaterally “because time is of the essence.”

After a hearing, the trial court determined that the oldest child should attend GPS but that Father should pay that portion of the GPS tuition that equals the tuition at Notre Dame High School, with Mother paying the balance. This results in Father paying 49% of the GPS tuition.

Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines provide that a trial court may add “extraordinary educational expenses” to the base child support amount to pay for private school tuition when the trial court finds such a deviation to be in the best interests of the children.

Specifically, the Guidelines provide that

[e]xtraordinary educational expenses may be added to the presumptive child support as a deviation. Extraordinary educational expenses include, but are not limited to, tuition, room and board, lab fees, books, fees, and other reasonable and necessary expenses associated with special needs education or private elementary and/or secondary schooling . . . .

After reviewing the record and the operative parenting plan that requires the party to each pay 50% of private school expenses when the expenses have been mutually agreed upon in advance, the Court held the trial court’s ruling was inconsistent with the parenting plan:

The [] Parenting Plan . . . contains a clause requiring joint decision-making related to the children’s education, to wit: “major decisions regarding the children shall be made as follows: educational decisions made jointly.” Father argues that he was excluded from the decision-making process when Mother unilaterally enrolled the older child at GPS. From our review of the record, the evidence preponderates in favor of Father’s contention. Father testified that Mother informed him that she planned to enroll the older child at GPS. Father voiced his disagreement; nonetheless, Mother enrolled the child over Father’s protest. Mother’s testimony corroborates Father’s testimony. . . . 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 . . . Parenting Plan[, which] provides that Father will pay one-half of the private school tuition [when the parties agree in advance]. . . . [W]e conclude that Father should be ordered to pay one-half of the Notre Dame High School tuition . . . going forward unless and until Mother and Father jointly agreed to enroll the child in another school.

The case was remanded to the trial court to enter a new order consistent with this ruling.

Pua-Vines v. Vines (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, August 2, 2017).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee 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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