In some cases, divorce settlement agreements may be contested if the circumstances of the parties change. The Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently reviewed a dispute related to this issue in Turner v. Turner (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 11, 2016). In Turner, the parties had entered into a Child Custody, Support, and Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) after they divorced in 2011 in Mississippi. The PSA provided that each parent was responsible for one-half of their child’s tuition and expenses at a mutually agreed-upon private school. In 2014, the father advised the mother he could no longer afford to pay the tuition, and he did not consent to the child’s re-enrollment at her current private school. The mother filed a petition to enforce the PSA in Tennessee, where the mother and child resided.
At the hearing, the father testified that during a period of self-employment, he accumulated credit card debt to meet his monthly expenses. He conceded that his current salary was more than he earned at the time the parties executed the PSA. However, he argued that he could not afford to continue paying $622.50 per month in tuition, in addition to saving for her college education, his attorney’s fee bills, and his credit card payments. The trial court concluded that it was not in the child’s best interest to switch schools and declined to allocate the tuition and expenses differently than set forth in the PSA. The father subsequently appealed.
On appeal, the court honored the choice of law provision in the PSA and applied Mississippi law to the case, observing that the rules governing contract interpretation are largely similar to those in Tennessee. Although the court noted that the PSA was not a model of clarity, after examining all of the provisions together and applying the canons of contract interpretation, it found that the parties’ intent to send the child only to private school became manifestly clear. In particular, the court found it illogical that the parties would provide detailed conditions for the child’s private schooling while failing to mention any possibility of public education if they had intended public school as an option.
The court also found that the father’s withholding of consent was unreasonable. The court explained that the father’s concerns regarding future college tuition and other future expenses were not mandated under the PSA, and he was currently able to afford his obligations. Furthermore, the father voluntarily assumed his obligations under the PSA, and he had no objections to the child’s schooling other than cost.
Finally, the court denied the father’s request to apportion the child’s tuition between the parties based on their incomes. The court found that no provision in the PSA permitted the modification of the parties’ tuition obligations, nor was such an arrangement specified in the PSA. The court additionally noted that the father had not alleged that a substantial and material change in circumstance warranted revisiting the parties’ obligations. As a result, the court affirmed the judgment ordering the father’s compliance with the PSA.
After a divorce, important decisions concerning your child’s education and life may be uncertain. At Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, our skilled child support lawyers provide compassionate guidance to Nashville individuals as they navigate issues after separation, including child custody, alimony, property division, and more. To schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys, contact Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard online or call (615) 800-7096.