Child-Support Deviation for Extraordinary Educational Expenses Analyzed in Nashville, Tennessee: Cain-Swope v. Swope

March 18, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: After Mother and Father divorced, Mother appealed portions of the trial court’s judgment, including the question of a child-support deviation for extraordinary educational expenses.

In the first appeal, the Court of Appeals erred by relying on an agreed parenting plan never approved by the trial court that stated neither parent had to pay for private school. Based on this error, the Court found that Mother waived the issue of extraordinary educational expenses.

When the case returned to the trial court after the first appeal, Mother again sought a downward deviation in her child-support obligation for the cost of their youngest child’s private-school tuition.

Relying on the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that Mother waived this issue, the trial court declined to grant a downward deviation for extraordinary educational expenses:

This Court is bound by the Court of Appeals’ decision. If this Court were to disregard the Court of Appeals’ findings and conclusions, the Court would be altering the parties’ agreement, which was accepted and approved by the Court of Appeals.

Mother appealed.

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

Tennessee’s Child Support Guidelines say:

Extraordinary 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 that are appropriate to the parents’ financial abilities and to the lifestyle of the child if the parents and the child were living together.

Tennessee child support guidelinesMother argued that she might have a downward deviation because she is paying private-school tuition for the parties’ remaining minor child.

Father argued that extraordinary educational expenses can only be added to—not subtracted from—a child-support obligation per the Guidelines.

When construing laws and regulations, Tennessee courts must determine legislative intent and effectuate a legislative purpose. The text of the statute or regulation is of primary importance, and the words must be given their natural and ordinary meaning in the context in which they appear and given their general purpose. When the language is clear and unambiguous, courts look no farther to ascertain its meaning. When necessary to resolve an ambiguity or conflict, courts may consider matters beyond the text itself, including public policy, historical facts relevant to the enactment of the law or regulation, its background and purpose, and the entire statutory or regulatory scheme.

Tennessee’s Child Support Guidelines are applied as a rebuttable presumption that can be rebutted when the court finds that using the Guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate.

The Court agreed with Mother’s interpretation of the Guidelines:

While the [] guidelines give trial courts the discretion to add extraordinary educational expenses to child support, courts can also choose to depart from those guidelines when doing so would be unjust and inappropriate. Father cites no caselaw in which Tennessee courts have expressly rejected a request for a deviation of child support for the payment of private-school tuition by the obligor parent on the basis that such a deviation is not permitted by the guidelines. To allow a deviation not only to increase child support based on extraordinary expenses but also decrease child support in that situation appears to more fully correspond with the purpose of deviations to calculate child support on a case-by-case basis according to the parties’ actual expenses and lifestyle. To hold otherwise would be to arbitrarily mandate that while some actual circumstances should be considered, others should be ignored.

With that in mind, a downward deviation in child support for extraordinary educational expenses can be appropriate when an obligor, custodial parent pays for private-school tuition and is not credited for making those tuition payments. Inversely, failing to credit a parent for those private-school expenses under these circumstances could be unjust and inappropriate under the state’s child support guidelines. As shown in the guidelines, courts must consider whether a deviation is appropriate to the parents’ financial abilities and to the lifestyle of the child if the parents and the child were living together. These deviations, as outlined in the guidelines, are highly discretionary, should be determined on a case-by-case basis, and rest securely within the judgment of the trial court.

Because the trial court rejected Mother’s request for a deviation based on the Court of Appeals’ erroneous conclusion in the first appeal and not based on its determination of the parties’ circumstances or the equities, the Court reversed its denial of Mother’s request and remanded the issue for reconsideration.

Cain-Swope v. Swope (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, February 21, 2020).

Child-Support Deviation for Extraordinary Educational Expenses Analyzed in Nashville, Tennessee: Cain-Swope v. Swope was last modified: March 17th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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