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Can a Judge Force You to Pay Your Child's Private School Tuition?

| Samuel H. Thorp Samuel H. Thorp

In some circumstances, the answer is "yes."

In North Carolina, a court considering a parent's child support obligation initially consults the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines (the "Guidelines").  The Guidelines contain an objective formula that sets child support based on the combined income of both parents.  If the combined monthly income of both parents is less than $25,000.00, then the Guidelines are used to determine child support.  If the combined monthly income of both parents is more than $25,000.00, then the Guidelines are inapplicable.

Because calculations under the Guidelines are primarily income driven, an extra expense like private school tuition is rarely factored into the equation.  Unless a judge independently decides that because private schooling is necessary to meet a child's particular educational needs, or a parent convinces the court that their child has a particular educational need which can only be met by private schooling, the Guidelines do not provide for private school tuition, and consider it an extraordinary expense.  As a result, courts rarely consider private school tuition when using the Guidelines, much less make a parent pay it as part of the parent's court-ordered child support obligation.

But what about cases where the parents' combined income is more than $25,000 and the Guidelines do not apply?  Can a North Carolina court then force a parent to pay private school tuition?

According to a recent case from the North Carolina Court of Appeals, entitled Smith v. Smith, the answer is "yes."

In Smith, the court considered whether a trial judge can make a parent pay private school tuition without a specific showing that the child needs the advantages offered by private schooling.  Ultimately, the court concluded that a trial judge can require a parent to pay private school tuition.

In reaching its decision, the court relied on several factors, the most important of which were:

  • The parents' combined monthly income, which exceeded $25,000.00;
  • Private school was part of the children's accustomed standard of living;
  • The parent whose obligation was being considered was capable of paying the tuition; and,
  • The parents had previously agreed that their children would be educated in private school.

Based on these factors, the court determined that it was reasonable to require the husband to pay the child's private school tuition.

The Smith case is important because it creates a precedent for trial courts to potentially make private school tuition a component of future child support determinations for parents in similar factual circumstances.  If you and your spouse's combined monthly income exceeds $25,000.00, you and your spouse have agreed that your child will attend private school, and your child has historically attended private school, then your child support obligation could very well include the payment of private school tuition.

Although the Smith case may not apply to all parents in similar factual circumstances, it is instructive for high income earning parents who have a child enrolled in private school, and who are considering what their child support obligation might be after separation and divorce.

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© 2016 Ward and Smith, P.A. For further information regarding the issues described above, please contact Samuel H. Thorp.

This article is not intended to give, and should not be relied upon for, legal advice in any particular circumstance or fact situation. No action should be taken in reliance upon the information contained in this article without obtaining the advice of an attorney.

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