After a divorce, there are many decisions to consider regarding the couple’s children and financial obligations. In a March 1, 2017 decision, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee considered an appeal of a trial court order concerning the father’s obligation to pay private school tuition and the mother’s imputed income for the purpose of calculating child support.
In the case, the Final Decree of Divorce entered by the trial court incorporated the parties’ permanent parenting plan, wherein the father agreed to pay for his children’s private school education through high school. In settling the amount of child support, the court also found that the mother was voluntarily unemployed and imputed to her an income of $72,000. In March 2015, the father filed a petition seeking to modify his obligation to pay the tuition. The lower court denied this request, holding that the father’s tuition obligations are not subject to modification. The trial court also denied the mother’s request to modify her support obligation.
While Tennessee courts do not have authority to order a parent to pay the undergraduate or post-secondary tuition of a child who is at the age of maturity if a parent enters into such an agreement it will be enforced by the Tennessee courts. This type of agreement retains its contractual nature when included in the final decree of divorce, and cannot be modified by the court. However, tuition for private grade school or high school is considered an extraordinary educational expense that may, in some circumstances, be a part of a parent’s duty to support his or her child. Unlike an agreement to pay college tuition, a parent’s agreement to pay for private elementary or secondary education may be subject to modification if it is incorporated into the final decree of divorce.
In considering the father’s appeal, the court explained that in this case, the father’s agreement was to pay for private elementary and secondary tuition, not college or post-secondary tuition. Accordingly, the trial court did have the authority to order this type of support even without an agreement by the parents. The appeals court, therefore, concluded that the lower court erred in holding that it did not have the authority to modify the father’s private tuition obligation and remanded the matter back to the trial court for consideration.
The appeals court went on to address the issue of the mother’s imputed income. In Tennessee, income may be imputed to a parent when the court determines that the parent is voluntarily underemployed. Factors in support of such a finding include the parent’s past and present employment, his or her education, training, and ability to work, role as a stay-at-home parent, and any other relevant factors. In affirming the lower court’s order, the appeals court noted that the mother was a licensed civil engineer, spoke three languages, and had no physical or mental limitations. It also credited the trial court’s finding that it was not persuaded that the mother’s job search had been diligent.
A skilled family law attorney can provide further guidance regarding your specific legal needs. The Nashville firm of Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard represents individuals in divorce cases, child custody and visitation disputes, spousal and child support, and many other family law matters. To make your appointment with one of our experienced lawyers, contact our offices by phone at (615) 800-7096 or online.