How are costs associated with a child’s private school tuition calculated as it relates to child support in North Carolina? In North Carolina, child support obligations are set by the state child support guidelines. Typically, the support guidelines do not include private school tuition. Nevertheless, every situation and child is different, and the court will make exceptions in some cases.

As in most situations, parents can agree to the payment of school tuition. A lawsuit will follow only when parents fail to reach such an agreement. There are two exceptional circumstances in which a court will award child support payments for a child’s private schooling.

Those situations are: (1) When the judge decides on his/her own to include private school tuition in a child support award; and (2) when a parent requests private school tuition be included in child support.

Judge’s Discretion: A judge has the discretion to decide that an adjustment of the support guidelines to allow for private school tuition is necessary for the wellbeing of the child. After such a determination is made, no further steps or filings are needed. The judge simply adjusts the support obligation worksheet under the “extraordinary expenses” section. However, judges seldom act alone on this issue.

It is worth noting for parents that it is extremely likely that a judge will not consider private schooling in a support case. In actuality, there is no obligation for the court to balance the pros and cons of private education or any factors regarding the financial backgrounds of the parents.

Parental Request:  The second way for private school tuition to be included in a support award is by the request of a parent. A parent can make a request for the court to depart from the guidelines by making a written request at least 10 days before the child-support hearing. Such a request makes the court aware that there are additional factors for it to consider when determining child support. A request to deviate from the guidelines normally involves a series of steps.

First, the court will determine child support based on the North Carolina support guidelines. Second, the court will ask to hear facts indicating why a deviation from the guidelines is necessary for the child. Third, the court will hear facts regarding the financial ability of each parent to provide support. Fourth, after hearing all of the evidence, the court will make its determination of whether the guidelines will be appropriate or unfair in the case. Lastly, the court will put its decision and reasoning in writing.

If the court determines that the guidelines do not reasonably meet the needs of the child, the judge can increase or decrease support to allow for an appropriate obligation.

The standard the court looks to when considering child custody and support cases involves the best interest of the child. Thus, facts showing the existence, or non-existence, of a child’s educational need to attend private school would be sufficient. Such needs range from disability assistance, extracurricular activities and psychological services. Other factors the court considers include: a child’s standard of living, a child’s performance in public schools, a child’s previous enrollment in private school, a parent’s enrollment in private education, resources within the local public schools, and agreement between the parents on a child’s education.

The court does not want a parent to go broke because of an inability to pay child support. Thus, the court looks at the income of each parent so it can make a fair decision on the amount of support that should be ordered. The court uses several factors to calculate income, such as:

  • A parent’s monthly income;
  • Reasonable expenses;
  • Support a parent receives for other children;
  • Real estate and other assets owned by a parent;
  • The benefits a parent receives as an employee.

Questions you may be asking:

Will child support cover the entire cost of tuition?

Such a determination is made on a case-by-case basis. Once a deviation from the guidelines is granted, additional child support obligations will be proportional to each parent’s actual income. Thus, the financial background of each parent is the determining factor in answering this question.

Am I eligible if my child attends a religious school?

Yes. After the court determines that support payments can be applied to a child’s private school tuition, such payments are applicable to religious education. In fact, the court considers religious schooling as an educational need when considering whether a deviation from the guidelines is proper.

If my child is 18, am I obligated to pay private school tuition?

Generally, a parent does not owe a continuing obligation of support to a child over age 18. However, there are a few exceptions that could apply. If a child is still in either primary or secondary school when he has reached age 18, child support obligations continue until the earlier of: (1) the child graduating; (2) termination of attending school regularly, or failing to make progress towards graduating; or (3) the child reaching age 20.

Our separation agreement has a provision for private school education. How will the courts view the agreement?

Judges will take such provisions into consideration when making their decisions. But, the court can choose to ignore this provision if the best interests of the child are not sufficiently met.

What if spouses disagree about private school?

The court is the ultimate arbiter of whether private school tuition should be included in support payments. The parents do not have to be in agreement.  In situations where the parents have agreed to child support terms, the court will use such information in determining child support payments.

If my child changes schools, can support payments be modified?

Yes, the court can modify child support payments based on a child changing schools.  Child support obligations are not set in stone, and can always be modified by the court based on facts indicating a change in circumstances. The parent desiring a modification must show that the change is “substantial” and “material.”  These terms mean any fact that would have produced a different result if presented when the obligation was decided.

As you might have concluded, determining whether private school tuition will be included in your child support payment is a complicated process. You have the option to go through the process alone, but many parents consult an attorney. The aid of an attorney guarantees that your concerns are addressed and understood by the court. Therefore, if you are concerned that private school tuition may or may not be included within your child support payment, you should consider consulting with an attorney.