Board Certified Family Law Specialist Matt Arnold answers the question: “What children’s expenses are covered by child support?”
In a case that is the first of its kind for our courts, the North Carolina Court of Appeals just ruled that a child support order can include private school tuition for families whose gross income exceeds the state’s Child Support Guidelines.
It may seem like a no-brainer; if a divorcing couple is extremely wealthy, it seems logical that the comparatively paltry private tuition costs should be included in a child support order, especially against the wealthier parent. However, the issue of private school tuition had never been decided before for couples that exceed the $300,000 annual guideline limits.
Craig and Vera Smith’s three daughters attend Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. The school’s annual tuitions are by no means insignificant—the school website indicates they range from $16,950 for pre-kindergarten to $24,030 for grades six (6) through 12.
However, Craig Smith, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, earned more than $522,000 in 2011, the year that the trial court entered the initial child support order in the case. Court records show that his income has increased every year since then.
By contrast, Vera’s annual income fluctuated between $36,000 a year and $51,000 in the years surrounding their separation and divorce.
When Craig and Vera first married in 1992 after meeting at work, they were both working as certified public accountants at the same firm. The Smiths relocated to different cities twice so that Craig could pursue a career at the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. As Craig’s income was steadily climbing during that period, Vera’s was doing the exact opposite. Her annual income decreased from $80,000 to $38,000 during that period because she became the primary caregiver of their three children.
Distribution of assets
Taking these factors into account, the trial court’s equitable distribution order awarded Vera an unequal distribution in her favor in 2011. North Carolina follows an equitable distribution model in the division of assets and property in divorce cases. This means that courts can consider what a fair division of assets would be instead of simply dividing everything in half, as community property states do. A frequent consideration for courts in determining what would be fair in equitable distribution is whether one spouse sacrificed their own earning capacity in order to raise children from the marriage.
The Smiths separated back in 2007 before Craig filed for divorce in 2009. At the time of separation, Craig allegedly stopped contributing to his daughters’ tuition payments, forcing Vera to cover the costs of the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years from her savings and the children’s minor trust accounts.
In a proceeding separate from the custody determination in 2014, the trial court ordered Craig to repay Vera $116,409 for the Providence Day tuition between 2007 and 2010, as well as retroactive and future child support. Craig appealed on the issue of the private school tuition he was ordered to pay, arguing case law in which parents with much lesser incomes which fell within the Child Support Guidelines were not required to pay for private school in child support if public school could satisfy the child’s needs.
However, the court looked at the fact that until their separation, both parents shared a mutual intent to educate their children in private school, and the fact that the girls were already enrolled there. These two factors were dispositive of the court’s “accustomed standard of living” determination, a valuable consideration in post-divorce support judgments.
The Smiths currently have permanent equal custody of their children on a week-on, week-off basis.
If you find yourself facing a complicated family law matter, then you need the help of experienced family-law attorneys in Charlotte, North Carolina who can help guide you through the often confusing process of divorce. Please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828 or find additional resources here.
About the Author
Matthew Arnold is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of family law, divorce, child custody, child support, alimony and equitable distribution.
Mr. Arnold was raised in Charlotte, where he graduated from Providence Senior High School. He attended Belmont Abbey College, where he graduated cum laude, before attending law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full academic scholarship.
A certified Family-Law Specialist, Mr. Arnold is admitted to practice in all state and administrative courts in North Carolina, before the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, and before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
In his free time, Mr. Arnold enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife and three children.
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