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.

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 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 could not be modified.

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 majority. However, if a parent willingly enters into an agreement to do so, 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.

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