Hardman v. Hardman – Allocation of Child Tuition Expenses in Divorce Settlement

Most parents want to ensure their children have the best possible chance of success as an independent adult, and that means having a solid education. However, there are many varying schools of thought about what a good education looks like – and how much it costs. so.jpg

In matters of divorce, disputes about education (specifically the funding) can become especially heated. The cost of private school can be as much annually as college tuition. And while most parents aren’t legally obligated to pay for either private school or college tuition for their children, that could change in the midst of a divorce.

Increasingly, family courts are allowing for the enforcement of “reasonable” educational costs when one parent argues for it. The decision is typically based on both parents’ income, the kind of education the child was receiving prior to the split and whether there is already a fund established.

A previous Indiana law that specifically allowed for child support orders to include sums for higher learning was later repealed, but family courts do still allow such provisions in certain situations.

Our Hammond child support lawyers know that making such requests, particularly in a contentious split, require a fair degree of diplomacy. It’s possible you and your soon-to-be-ex might be able to reach an agreement on the matter without forcing a judge to resolve it. Either way, the key is to ensure the end result as written in the divorce agreement is thorough, and excludes no pertinent details. It will be key later if your spouse does not uphold his or her end of the bargain.

In the recent case of Hardman v. Hardman, a dispute over child education was at the center of a drawn-out court battle waged all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court.

According to court records, the pair married in 1992 and divorced in 2013. They had three children, including minor twin boys who attended private school. They had joint legal custody, but the mother had primary physical custody. While they were each to participate jointly in discussions regarding education, schools, health care and religion, each parent was given final authority on certain matters in the event of a dispute (the father on education and health care, the mother on religion and extracurricular). Father was ordered to pay $7,000 monthly in alimony/child support. If mother remarried and alimony was terminated, he would still pay $2,000 monthly for child support.

The pair’s oldest child was in college, while the younger were beginning a private school in 6th grade. Private school funding cost $2,600 collectively per month. Prior to divorce, the pair paid for this with joint funds, though father typically wrote the check. After divorce, mother refused to pay the tuition, and indicated she would move children into a public school unless the father paid for it.

The father paid the advanced tuition of $9,500 so the boys could enroll for the year, and then filed a complaint seeking reimbursement and also a declaratory judgment as to whether the mother was required to pay tuition out of her $7,000 monthly payments and whether she was allowed to take them out of private school and enroll them in public education.

The trial court granted mother’s motion for summary judgment, indicating father’s action was barred by res judicata, as he was attempting to re-litigate the terms of the divorce settlement agreement.

The state supreme court reversed, finding the trial court incorrectly applied the doctrine of res judicata strictly in the context of divorce cases because, as the courts recognize, family circumstances are often prone to change, and the child’s best interest should always be the top priority.

Further, the court noted the settlement specifically gave the father final decision-making authority on education issues, and his decisions on those issues – including where they go to school – are binding.

As for who should pay for it, it is generally the responsibility of the custodial parent, using the financial contributions received from the non-custodial parent – unless otherwise stipulated. Exceptions can be made, however, for “extraordinary educational expenses.” However, that would still need to be stipulated in the divorce agreement.

Indiana Family Law Attorney Burton A. Padove handles divorce and child custody matters throughout northern Indiana, including Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:
Hardman v. Hardman, Sept. 22, 2014, Georgia Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Balogh v. Balogh – Post-Nuptial Agreements Can Protect Property, Sept. 3, 2014, Indiana Family Law Attorney Blog