Private School Expenses at Issue in Nashville, Tennessee Child Support Modification: Vance v. Vance

Facts: Mother and Father divorced in 2009. Their agreed parenting plan provided that their oldest child, who was then attending kindergarten at a private school, would continue in private school through the end of first grade. Each agreed to pay 50% of the expenses.

The parenting plan also said, “In the event either child attends private school beyond [the oldest child]’s first grade year, it shall only be by mutual agreement of the parties for that particular year in question.”

Four years later, Father petitioned to modify child support to require Mother to share pro rata in the children’s extraordinary educational expenses.

In her answer to Father’s petition, Mother wrote:

Father is the one who wanted the children to attend private school. Mother has agreed for the children to continue in private school as Father has requested. However, she has clarified that she will not commit herself to pay for private school.

Tennessee child support private school

Mother admitted she has the money to send the children to private school, but said she philosophically opposes private schools, instead believing that a public-school education prepares children better for what they will deal with in society and in life. The Court of Appeals noted that despite Mother’s philosophical problems with private schools, she allowed her children to attend one if she did not have to pay.

The trial court found the parties’ provision requiring agreement on private school to carry “no force and effect,” instead holding that private schooling was “clearly under the control of the court.” The trial court ruled that the child shall continue in private school and parties are responsible for their pro rata portion of the private school expenses. As a result, Mother owes over $57,000 in tuition arrears.

Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s ruling.

Mother argued the trial court erred in failing to enforce the parties’ agreement to require agreement before sending either child to private school.

Based on Mother’s answer to Father’s petition in which she admitted that she agreed for the children to attend private school for a few years, the Court concluded that Mother must pay her pro rata share of the associated expenses.

For the later years, however, the evidence is that Mother did not agree for the children to attend private school.

Any agreement between parents regarding child support is subject to court modification once the agreement becomes a court order. It was well within the trial court’s power to modify the parties’ agreement regarding private school.

The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines provide that extraordinary educational expenses, such as private school expenses, may be added to child support as a deviation if it is appropriate to the parents’ financial abilities and to the lifestyle of the child were the parents and child living together.

To support a deviation for extraordinary educational expenses in Tennessee, the trial court must make written findings on:

  1. the reasons for the change or deviation from the presumptive child support that would’ve been paid under the Child Support Guidelines; and
  2. the child support that would’ve been required under the Guidelines if the presumptive amount had not been rebutted; and
  3. how, in the trial court’s determination,
    (i) application of the Guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate; and
    (ii) that the child’s best interests will be served by deviating from the presumptive guideline amount.

The Court found the trial court merely made conclusory statements rather than the reasoned findings necessary to deviate from the Child Support Guidelines:

When evaluating the trial court’s opinion in light of the findings required by [the Child Support Guidelines], we find that two areas are lacking. The trial court must make findings on how application of the Guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate in the particular case before the tribunal[,] and how the best interests of the child . . . will be served by deviation from the presumptive guideline amount. The trial court’s discussion on these two points is merely conclusory with no reasons given. Absent these findings, we cannot properly review the trial court’s decision. We must, therefore, vacate the decision and remand the matter to the trial court for such findings, based on the record or further testimony.

Vance v. Vance (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, March 16, 2018).

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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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