Child Support Deviation for Private School Tuition Challenged in Chattanooga, Tennessee: Bastone v. Bastone

May 24, 2021 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of three children, divorced after eight years of marriage. Their parenting plan required joint decision-making.

Several years later, Mother unilaterally enrolled the oldest child in an expensive private school, knowing that Father objected to the cost. Cross-petitions followed to modify the parenting plan and for sole decision-making authority over educational decisions.

When the case was finally heard, the oldest child was halfway through her second year at the private school. Mother paid the tuition and other expenses with the proceeds from an injury settlement and a contribution from her mother.

Father earned $116,000 a year to Mother’s $17,000 a year.

The trial court found it was in the oldest child’s best interest to continue in private school because she was doing well, making good grades, and changing schools at this point would be harmful educationally, socially, and possibly psychologically.

The trial court then ordered an upward deviation in Father’s child support to pay 50% of the private school tuition.

Finally, the trial court found it was in the children’s best interest for the parties to retain joint decision-making authority over educational decisions.

Father appealed.

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

Father first argued the trial court was precluded from ordering Father to pay any portion of the private school tuition because Mother unilaterally enrolled the child in private school over Father’s objection.

Tennessee’s Child Support Guidelines are intended to assure that children receive support consistent with their parents’ financial resources.

The Court held Mother’s unilateral decision to enroll the oldest child in private school did not preclude the trial court from requiring Father to pay a portion of the tuition after the trial court determined it was in the child’s best interest to remain in private school:

[A]lthough the parties did have joint educational decision-making authority . . . , they had no agreement concerning private school tuition and expenses, including no agreement foreclosing private school. . . . Throughout the proceedings, Father’s objection to [the oldest child’s] attendance at [private school] were based on his consistently held opinion that the parties could not afford [private school] tuition. Father acknowledged that [the oldest child] was thriving at [private school] and that it would be difficult to “pull her out” of the school, which was part of his reasoning for stating that it would have been better never to have enrolled [the oldest child] at [private school].

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Upon thorough review of the record, we conclude that the trial court properly considered Mother’s unilateral enrollment of [the oldest child] at [private school] within its analysis of the unique circumstances of this case and the Children’s best interest. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that, given its conclusions regarding [the oldest child’s] best interest, Father’s child support obligation for a portion of [the oldest child’s private school] tuition was not precluded by Mother’s prior unilateral decision to enroll [the oldest child.]

Father then argued the trial court erred by ordering an upward deviation in his child support obligation.

The Guidelines provide

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

The Guidelines also allow for consideration of scholarships, grants, stipends, and other benefits received by the child when determining the amount of the deviation.

When ordering a deviation, the trial court must state

  • the reasons for the deviation;
  • how the application of the Guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate without the deviation; and
  • how the child’s best interest will be served by the deviation.

The Court found no abuse of discretion:

[T]he trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that payment of [the oldest child’s private school] tuition, even without financial aid, was appropriate to the parents’ financial abilities and to the lifestyle that [the oldest child] would have enjoyed if the parents and child were living together.

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Because the trial court’s determination regarding this issue was not against logic or sound reasoning and was within the range of acceptable alternatives, we conclude that no abuse of discretion occurred.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) Compare this case with Pua-Vines v. Vines. There, the parties’ parenting plan required them to equally divide the cost of private school if those costs were “mutually agreed upon” before they were incurred. The mother wanted the child to attend one private school, and the father preferred another, less expensive private school. The mother unilaterally enrolled the child in her preferred school over the father’s objection. The Court of Appeals ordered the father to pay one half the cost of the less expensive school he preferred because that was contemplated by the parenting plan.

Here, Father tried to use Pua-Vines to support the conclusion that he should not have to pay anything toward the oldest child’s private school tuition. The Court distinguished Pua-Vines because these parents did not have an agreement about the payment of private school tuition like the parties did in Pua-Vines.

While true, how relevant is that distinction? Here, the parents had an agreement/court order to exercise joint decision-making over the children’s educational decisions, which court order Mother intentionally violated. Pua-Vines suggests Tennessee courts should interpret parenting plans to reach a result contemplated by the parties. Did that happen here?

(2) The opinion says the trial court applied the best-interest factors found at Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a) when deciding whether to award sole decision-making authority over educational decisions to either parent. No reference is made to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-407(c), which lists the criteria Tennessee courts must consider when allocating decision-making authority. Did the trial court conduct the correct legal analysis?

Bastone v. Bastone (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, April 30, 2021).

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Child Support Deviation for Private School Tuition Challenged in Chattanooga, Tennessee: Bastone v. Bastone was last modified: May 24th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

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