How much child support a parent owes and what can be taken as a credit towards child support obligations are common questions in family law matters. A large expense, which could result in a large child support deduction — or even its elimination, comes from payment of private school tuition.
In Tennessee, child support awards are governed by the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines (“Guides”). The Guides have the force of law and their purpose is to ensure children receive support reasonably consistent with their parents’ financial resources. Guides 1240-02-04-.01(3)(e). Tennessee Courts are required to use the Guides to “promote efficient child support proceedings and dependable, consistent child support awards.”
The Guides result in use of a Child Support Worksheet (“CSW”) to determine the amount of child support owed. Certain financial and other facts are plugged into the CSW, and it calculates a child support award amount.
The child support amount is the presumptive amount that Courts generally use. But that number can be increased, or decreased, based on certain legal principles. This is called a deviation in the child support amount. While deviations to child support amounts are permitted, they are the exception to the rule. In determining whether a child support deviation should occur, the primary consideration is the best interest of the child.
The Guides specifically provide that “extraordinary education expenses” including “tuition, room and board, fees, books and other reasonable and necessary expenses associated with . . . private elementary and secondary schooling” “may be added to the presumptive child support order as a deviation.” The Guides permit extraordinary educational expenses as a deviation if they are “appropriate to the parents’ financial abilities and to the lifestyle of the child and if the parents and child were living together.”
Tennessee courts have also addressed a downward deviation in child support based upon private school tuition, holding “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 these tuition payments.” Cain-Swope v. Swope, (Tenn. Ct. App. February 21, 2020). Courts who deviate from the formula’s proscribed amount must also adhere to the Guides’ requirement of supportive, written findings in a court order to bolster any such conclusion. Thus, child support obligations may be reduced based on private school tuition payments.
Tennessee courts have also addressed the situation where the tuition payments are greater than the entire amount of child support owed. In circumstances where the obligor parent pays private school tuition which is greater than the amount of child support he or she would otherwise pay, under certain circumstances Tennessee courts have allowed that parent to pay no child support to the other parent. See, Richardson v. Spanos, (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005).
This means it is possible for a parent to avoid paying child support to the other parent, entirely, by paying private school tuition for the child(ren), particularly where the other parent does not demonstrate a financial need for additional support and where the amount of tuition paid equals or exceeds the obligor parent’s child support obligation under the Guides. In essence, it is discretionary for the judge in each particular case. Speaking with an attorney experienced with the law and the involved judicial district can provide a more detailed analysis of each person’s individual situation and probability for success of such an argument.