Pittsburgh Family Law Services, P.C. Blog

How much does each person pay for private school tuition?

How much does each person pay for private school tuition?

Man paying child support money in cash
It's no secret that child support is a large part of your net income. If you're paying support, in general you can expect it to be somewhere between 18 and 25 percent of your take-home pay.  Child support is specifically for basic expenses: things like school lunches, clothing, and field trips fall in the cateory of what your payment is helping to cover.  This is not an exhaustive list, but in general, when you pay child support, you do not have to worry about constantly dividing the costs of shoes or cell phones, or iPads, because your payment is geared to help cover those expenses.  

That said, some expenses aren't covered by this payment and are paid on top of your monthly child support obligation.  One of, if not the largest of these expenses, is the cost of private school tuition.  Often, the parents discussed and agreed that their children would go to private school and they understandably want to keep them in the same school.  The question then becomes, who pays for private school tuition, and how much does each parent have to pay?  

Before we even get to the numbers, the first question is:  is private school reasonable under the parties' circumstances.  Like any good legal statute, "reasonable" has no set definition.  Of course, private school tuition (like many expenses) that was very affordable under two incomes can suddenly become challenging if you separate.  But increased expense alone isn't going to make the tuition unreasonable.  In general, if your children were going to private school prior to your separation and you have enough income to pay for it after exhausting all financial aid options, it is almost always found to be reasonable.  In my experience litigating these cases, this is true even when the parent paying for support wasn't told about private school and certainly didn't consent to it.  There are multiple reasons for this but the basic explanation is that child support is focused on the numbers and not whether a parent handled private school enrollment properly.  That's an issue to address in custody.  

Once a Hearing Officer determines that private school tuition is reasonable, that's when we look at how much each parent has to pay and how to pay it.  There's a large misconception that happens here and the misconception is that each parent pays 50% of the tuition costs.  It does not work that way.  Instead, Pennsylvania law requires that the tuition be allocated proportionally to your incomes.  What does that actually mean?  Let's look at some hard numbers:  we'll say that you earn $8,000 per month and the other parent earns $2,000 per month.  That means together, you have a combined income of $10,000.  Your portion of that total is 80 percent.  So, you will need to pay 80 percent of the monthly private school tuition.  This is a deliberately simple example but reflects the reality for most families:  Pennsylania law for child support does not require a 50/50 division of expenses and is instead focused on what percentage of income you each have.  

There are multiple ways to pay this amount.  The most common is that the tuition payment is added to your monthly child support.  This is easy to keep track of because it's automatically attached to your paycheck and you don't have to worry about someone saying they never received a payment.  It's not the only method though.  Other methods include paying a lump sum at the beginning of each semester, or having one parent make the full payment up front and you reimburse them within a certain amount of time.  These arrangements can be beneficial if tuition is only due 10 months out of the year instead of 12.  Whether those arrangements are in the Order depends on if you and the other parent can agree upon how to handle them, and of course requires looking into your individual financial circumstances to see if an alternative payment arrangement is feasible.  

It may sound like I'm saying that you'll be paying a lot in private school tuition in addition to your regular child support payment.  In general, it's true that there aren't many ways to get out of paying the tuition if your children have always gone to private school and you can objectively afford it (albeit at the cost of making lifestyle changes for yourself).  But that doesn't mean just blindly agreeing to a given amount.  You should first make sure of two things:  

1.  That you know the actual amount of tuition, and 
2.  That you and the other parent have exhausted financial aid options.  

Many, many parents end up paying more than they need to in tuition simply because they didn't ask for documentation of the cost.  They also don't have a conversation with the other parent about financial aid or what options may be available.  Before you go to a support conference that will end with an Order requiring you to make a substantial financial commitment each month, you should take the time to find out what percentage you will be expected to pay, and what the actual tuition cost will be.