Payment of school tuition, costs, and fees can be a challenging issue to handle in separation and divorce. It is not uncommon for divorcing parents to disagree about the necessity of a private or boarding school education or who should be responsible for covering a child’s educational costs. When the family structure changes maintaining stability in a child’s schooling can be essential to helping them navigate and adjust to the divorce.
Communication with the School
As soon as a divorce or separation is decided on, it is wise to communicate that information to your child’s school. Teachers and counselors need to be aware of the change in the family so they can be ready to help your child if they struggle. Advising them of this will also make them more likely to be understanding if your child has behavioral or performance issues. Many schools offer specialized support to children during a divorce, so you want your child to have access to all the available resources. If your child is away at boarding school, it is crucial that there is a support system in place for them.
Communication with the school is also crucial to ensure that tuition and fees are paid promptly. It’s easy for notices and bills to be lost during this time of change and for spouses to have miscommunication about who is supposed to pay them. No matter the payment arrangements, it’s a good idea to ask to receive all statements and notices yourself so that you can monitor if they are being paid. Once you have a court order determining which parent is legally responsible for tuition, be sure to inform the school of this.
School Expenses and Child Support
Child support will be an important part of your divorce case. Not only will child support be established until your child becomes an adult, but it is likely that once your divorce is filed, temporary child support will be ordered for the pendency of the case. Both temporary and permanent orders of child support can direct who will pay for educational costs.
In New York state, child support is established using a formula that considers each parent’s income. However, child support is not intended to cover all of the child’s expenses. New York courts establish an amount for child support, and then the court can also order the payment of additional ‘add-ons.’ Add-ons can include the costs of education, child care, and medical care.
Education costs can comprise many things. These can include:
- Tuition and fees
- Transportation costs to and from school and to and from activities
- Sports equipment
- School supplies
- Room and board
- Private lessons and tutors
- Extracurricular activities
- Computers and technology
- Additional costs such as yearbooks, photos, admission to events, etc.
When calculating the cost of your child’s education, be sure to create a comprehensive list that includes all of these items.
Education costs could be split between the parents on a pro rata basis, or one parent could be ordered to pay all the costs or all of the certain enumerated costs. The parents could also be held responsible individually for specific costs, such as one parent paying tuition while the other pays all other related costs.
Necessity of Private or Boarding School Education
If the cost of private education or a boarding school becomes an issue that the parents can’t agree upon, it is up to the court to decide. The standard used in this situation is in the child’s best interests; however, the parents’ ability to pay is a significant factor.
Factors that a court will consider in determining if private education is in the best interests of your child include:
- The parents’ educational backgrounds
- The age and grade of the child
- The child’s current enrollment and how long they have attended that school
- How the private school education compares to the quality of education at the public school the child would otherwise attend
- The financial resources of the parents
While a private or boarding school might provide the best education possible, a court will not order this unless the parents are able to reasonably afford the cost based on their respective incomes. The child’s individual needs are an important consideration. Each case is weighed on its own merits and circumstances. There is no blanket requirement that private or boarding school be paid for as part of child support.
If the parents themselves attended private or boarding school, this would weigh in favor of the child attending private or boarding school. If a child is presently in a private or boarding school at the time of the divorce, the court would likely expect the parents to continue that level of education. However, if a child is not in a private school or does not attend boarding school at the time the couple divorces or separates, the parent seeking that placement would need to show the court why it is necessary or in the best interests of the child.
If your child has special needs, it is helpful to present evidence to the court about those needs from teachers, medical professionals, educational evaluators, and therapists. A child with specialized needs may reasonably require specialized education. Presenting a strong case with reports and testimony about the child’s needs is essential, so be certain to give your attorney all the information you have. This is important for children with educational, physical, or mental disabilities and gifted children.
If your child attends boarding school in another country, it is important to provide evidence as to why the location of the school (and the added expense this brings) is necessary. Important reasons can include either parents’ nationality, family ties in that country, businesses owned in that country, a second home in that country, or the child’s development of language skills specific to that area.
Previous Agreements Between Parents
Sometimes parents come to court having previously discussed private education or boarding school. One parent may claim the parties agreed to send their child to this type of school. New York courts have held that this type of agreement is irrelevant to the divorce court's determination about education. The court is only interested in making a determination that is in the best interest of the child. Whatever the parents may have said to each other or allegedly agreed to is irrelevant to the court’s determination.
Your child’s education is crucial to their future success. Ensuring that your child receives the best education possible is of great concern in your divorce.