I was reading a newspaper article recently discussing why families stretch their budgets for high-priced youth sports. The article detailed what families are doing to further the chances of their child becoming a collegiate or professional athlete. One of the families sold their home and moved to Florida so their daughter could be part of an elite tennis academy that also includes a full academic program. Some of these families have spent six figures on advancing the prospects of their child as an athlete, including trips around the country and even around the world to compete in tournaments. While this may seem to be extreme, nearly 20% of families spend more than $12,000 per year on club sports. And thousands of students every year enroll in private schools.
What happens to families going through a divorce who have spent thousands of dollars on extracurricular activities or private school education? Could one parent be forced to support these extracurricular activities? What about the private school education?
In Missouri, extracurricular activities are considered separate and extraordinary expenses. A court without the agreement of the parties could not order the parents to support the club sport interests of the children without limit. The court could, and should, allocate what percentage each parent would have to contribute to the payment of extracurricular activities. Also, in Missouri, the parents must agree to the activity in advance before both parents may be bound to pay for the expense. If one parent has sole legal custody, that parent could make the decision for the child to participate in the activity, but that parent could not make the other parent pay for that activity without that other parent’s consent. Further, if that activity will cut into the physical custody time of the other parent, and the other parent does not agree to waive that time or the parents do not agree on makeup time, the parent pushing the activity could end up facing a contempt proceeding.
As a secondary method of payment, the parties or the court could classify this activity as an extraordinary recurring expense and include it in Form 14 used for calculating child support. In this way, the activity is funded on a monthly budget, and if the activity ends or the parents cannot afford to pay any more, either the judgment could account for this with different child support amounts, or the parents could return to court and move to modify the child support amount.
A preferred method of addressing club sports, particularly when parents know a child has the capability and interest at the time of divorce, is to do so by agreement. If the parties make an agreement that is not unconscionable, the court can enter it as an order. Thus, if both parents want the child to have this opportunity, they can agree to the terms of participation and payment, and the impact on the custody schedule. It would be wise for the parents to agree to an “out” clause in the event one parent becomes financially unable to continue funding the club sport.
In Missouri, courts cannot force parents to send their children to a private school or to fund a private school without parental consent. Rather, Missouri operates on the assumption that children will attend public school unless the parents agree to send their children to private school.
What if one parent wants private school but the other parent opposes? In this situation, if the parents have joint legal custody, the parents must reach an agreement as to the school the child will attend. In the event they cannot agree, they must submit the matter to mediation or ultimately let the court decide. If one parent has sole legal custody, that parent can make the decision but not force the other parent to pay. Most parents will ultimately reach an agreement on attendance at private school, but not the payment of private school. In this situation, the parent in opposition will give consent as long as that parent has no financial responsibility to the tuition. The other parent, or perhaps a grandparent, will cover the cost of private school.
Again, the preferred method for handling private school would be through an agreement where the parents would set out the terms of selecting the school and paying for the school. In this agreement, the parents would address what would happen in the event one parent can no longer afford to pay for private school, as well as be sure to include both parents in all aspects of the life of the school, from parent-teacher conferences to grades to attending activities. Parents and the courts alike should encourage full participation in the school by both parents regardless of who pays for the schooling.
Some private schools have a religious orientation and include religion in the daily curriculum. Where parents disagree about religion, courts generally stay out of choosing a school because of First Amendment concerns. A court cannot compel a parent to agree to, let alone pay for, private religious schooling against the wishes of that parent. A court cannot decide in what religion a child will be raised.
What if a child has been attending a private school prior to divorce and one parent now opposes the school? In this situation, it is best for the parents to reach an agreement. If the parent opposing has genuine reasons, even if it has to do with payment, the court cannot ignore these wishes and force the parent to comply without that parent’s consent.
What if private school is the best option for the child’s needs? Here we get into trickier waters. In some situations where children have special needs, courts may decide that keeping a child in a private school environment would be in the best interests of the child. But again, the payment issue usually creates a problem. In rare situations, where the private school is the only option for the child, a parent may be ordered to contribute to that parent’s ability to pay.
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