Is My Ex Responsible for Our Child's Tuition?

Divorce is a stressful, complicated process, and your children’s welfare may be one of your primary concerns when making stipulations in a divorce settlement agreement. One of these stipulations might be who will be responsible for their tuition costs.

For instance, are the custodial and noncustodial parents equally responsible for their child’s tuition? That can depend on various factors such as the child’s age and the parents’ respective financial statuses.

First, we’ll differentiate between “custodial” and “noncustodial” parent for clarity.

What Is a Custodial Parent?

The parent designated as a child’s “custodial parent” (or “primary residential parent”) holds full physical or legal custody of their child by court order. Physical custody refers to where the child resides. Legal custody designates which parent is responsible for making decisions regarding the child’s welfare.

What Is a Noncustodial Parent?

The parent designated as a child’s “noncustodial parent” (or “alternate residential parent”) can have varying degrees of custody for their child. They may share joint physical and/or legal custody with the custodial parent. Being a noncustodial parent does not exclude a parent from the obligation to financially support their child.

What Do Tennessee Child Support Guidelines Say About Paying Tuition?

The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines state that tuition—whether for private school as a minor or college—is considered an “extraordinary education expense” and is not included in the basic child support schedule. This can be found in Rule 1240-02-04.03.

How Is a “Child” Defined in the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines?

It’s also important to note that, according to the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines, parents are only required to financially support their child until they reach the age of majority (18 years old). If the child turns 18 while still in high school, they’re still considered a minor until they graduate from high school.

A disabled person may also be eligible to receive child support after reaching the age of majority. Disabled individuals face a myriad of challenges in comparison to their non-disabled peers when it comes to being self-supporting.

What Is Included in Basic Child Support in Tennessee?

A basic child support schedule, or basic child support obligation (abbreviated as “BCSO” in the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines), is meant to cover a child’s basic living needs. This may include the following expenses:

  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Housing
    • Mortgage
    • Rent
    • Electricity bill
    • Phone bill
    • Cost of other utilities
  • Expenses incurred by a public school education (not tuition-based)
    • Cost of books
    • Any necessary fees
    • Cost of local field trips

What Is Not Included in Basic Child Support in Tennessee?

Certain fundamental costs necessary for a child’s well-being are not included in BCSO due to the variable nature of these expenses (in other words, whether parents can afford these expenses is dependent on their unique circumstances). Costs not covered by BCSO can include:

  • The child’s medical expenses
    • Health insurance premium
    • Any out-of-pocket medical costs
  • Childcare costs
  • Extraordinary educational expenses
    • Tuition
    • Room and board
    • Other fees
    • Costs associated with a special needs education
  • Special Expenses
    • Summer camp
    • Art lessons
    • School-sponsored extracurricular activities
      • Band
      • Athletics
      • Any other clubs, societies, or activities

What Do Tennessee Child Support Guidelines Say About College Tuition?

Like private school tuition for a child under 18 or who has not yet finished high school, college tuition (and any associated costs with attending college) would be considered an “extraordinary educational expense” in Tennessee and not included in BCSO.

There are certain scenarios, however, where the noncustodial parent can be ordered by the court to contribute financial support toward their child’s private school or college education.

Scenario 1: It’s Laid Out in a Divorce Settlement Agreement

When you divorced from your ex-spouse, you should have negotiated a divorce settlement agreement, which becomes a binding contract once signed by both parties. This agreement can outline various details regarding each parent’s responsibility toward both BCSO and expenses that fall outside of BCSO. These details can include:

  • Extent of contribution – How much the custodial and noncustodial parent is willing to contribute toward any support outside of BCSO should be specified in the divorce settlement agreement.
  • Length of support – How long each parent is willing to provide support should also be specified.
  • Any requirements on the child’s behalf – It’s possible that your child may have to meet certain conditions to receive support, such as maintaining a certain grade point average.
  • Types of costs – It’s important to be as clear as possible regarding the types of expenses that will be covered; this could help eliminate misunderstandings and disagreements later, when your child reaches the age of majority. For instance, distinguish between tuition and other college-related costs such as room and board, student health insurance, meal plans, a laptop, and books or other materials necessary for their education.

It’s important that the language used in a divorce settlement agreement is clear and precise, as it may need to be interpreted by the courts long after it was written. It would be wise to have an experienced attorney help you with this process to avoid issues down the road.

Modifying a Child Support Order

You may find yourself in a situation where you’re dissatisfied with the way your child’s support is currently assigned. If this is the case, there are certain circumstances wherein you can file a petition to have your child support modified.

Per Tennessee law, filing a petition to modify a child support order is possible if you can prove that a significant change has occurred from the time the original order was placed. These changes can include:

  • A change in gross income (by at least 15%, or 7.5% if the parent desiring the change receives a low income)
  • A change in the number of children that require support
  • If a child receiving support is now disabled

You should contact an attorney if you have any questions about revising an existing child support order.

Scenario 2: The Noncustodial Parent Is Wealthy

There have been certain cases in which the Supreme Court of Tennessee has ruled that a parent with a high income is obligated to contribute to their child’s college trust fund, even if it hasn’t been previously stipulated in a divorce settlement agreement.

Judi Richardson V. George Kevin Spanos

One such example is the case of Judi Richardson versus George Kevin Spanos. Spanos, a physician, was ordered to pay for their 11-year-old son’s private school education, which was beneficial for him since he experienced developmental challenges and learning disabilities. The court ordered Spanos to pay 55% of his son’s tuition, in addition to his already established BCSO.

What this case illustrates is the courts examining cases in a comprehensive way and making decisions for the welfare of children based on the individual circumstances of the respective parents involved. After all, this is the primary purpose of child support—to ensure that the child is taken care of in the best, fairest way possible in circumstances that may not be ideal.

Call Us Today

At Conner & Roberts, PLLC, our clients and their best interests are our priority. With decades of experience in determining and reaching legal solutions, we are well-equipped to help you understand your options when facing an issue relating to divorce and/or child support.

You can count on our attentiveness, compassion, and determination when it comes to reviewing your case. We strongly believe that no one should have to face these dilemmas alone.

Call us today at (423) 299-4489 or submit your information here to schedule your free consultation.
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