The Burn of College Expense

August 11, 2016 § 2 Comments

Decades ago a chancellor in this part of the world was asked why he insisted that his sons pay their own way through college. He replied that he would only do it if a chancellor ordered him to do it. Of course, the twist was that he was never divorced, so no chancellor could ever get involved in that decision-making.

It’s pretty well ingrained in our law now that a chancellor may order parents to contribute to the college expenses of their children post-divorce.

The latest iteration of the principle appears in the recent COA decision in Harris v. Porter, decided July 26, 2016.

In that case, the chancellor ordered Tony Harris to contribute $1,250 a semester to the cost of his daughter, Myrtis, to attend Mississippi State University. The chancellor also increased the child support he pays to his ex-wife, Michelle Porter. Tony appealed, and the COA affirmed. Judge Ishee wrote for a unanimous court:

¶6. Next, Harris argues that the trial court erred in awarding college expenses. Harris points to his financial statements, which he believes shows that there is no disposable income, and argues that Porter did not show evidence to the contrary. Harris further argues that he cannot afford to pay college expenses without significantly affecting his customary lifestyle. Harris explains that he has two young children who live with him and his current wife, and another child attending Alcorn State University. Harris also argues that there was no evidence that Myrtis will thrive in college. Finally, Harris asserts that he wanted to have input as to which college he could afford for Myrtis.

¶7. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that a child’s decision to attend college may be considered a material change in circumstances justifying child support modification. See Lawrence v. Lawrence, 574 So. 2d 1376, 1382 (Miss. 1991). Child-support payments under section 43-19-101 create an award for support that goes toward the child’s basic living expenses such as food, clothing, and shelter. See Nichols v. Tedder, 547 So. 2d 766, 769 (Miss. 1989). Additional expenses, including but not limited to health insurance, out-of-pocket health expenses, transportation, and college expenses, may be properly added to the basic support award. Id.

¶8. One or both parents may be ordered to pay part or all of a child’s college tuition and related expenses. Saliba v. Saliba, 753 So. 2d 1095, 1101 (¶21) (Miss. 2000) (citing Rankin v. Bobo, 410 So. 2d 1326, 1328 (Miss. 1982)). Nonetheless, as Harris asserted, “the parent must also have the ability to pay for the education without affecting his customary lifestyle.” Wallace v. Wallace, 965 So. 2d 737, 745 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007) (citation omitted). However, in this case, Harris did not present any evidence of how Harris’s lifestyle would change. Nor can we find anything in the record that supports his claim. As found earlier, the chancery court clearly reviewed Harris’s financial documents and found that Harris was able to help with college expenses. Furthermore, Porter explained that she is seeking financial assistance and Myrtis is applying for scholarships to help with the cost of tuition.

¶9. Porter introduced various awards, plaques, and newspaper clippings regarding Myrtis’s achievements during her high-school career, which led the chancery court to find that Myrtis was an “outstanding young lady.” She clearly showed aptitude for and the potential to benefit from college according to her high-school record. Myrtis was involved in numerous extracurricular activities both at school and in the community. There is ample evidence that Myrtis excelled as a well-rounded student. Her admission to Mississippi State University is one more example of that. While Harris complains that he should have been consulted about which college he could afford for Myrtis to attend, the chancery court’s ruling does not set forth a specific college and it does not prevent Harris from being a part of the decision-making process. [Fn1] We find this argument without merit.

[Fn 1] However, according to the record, Myrtis has been accepted to Mississippi State University and it is her preferred school. Furthermore, we point out that Harris would be paying what amounts to less than fifteen percent of the total cost of tuition. See http://www.admissions.msstate.edu/freshmen/money-matters/#tuition (the 2015-2016 annual cost to attend the school, on average, is about $23,000, which includes room and board, tuition, and out-of-pocket expenses).

As the footnote points out, it’s hard to imagine where Myrtis could have gone off to college that would have cost Tony less than $1,250 a semester. There are plenty of parents around the state under college-support orders who would gladly trade places with him. Speaking personally, as one who put a child through Millsaps College in the 1990’s, I would have in a heartbeat.

Until the nation “feels the Bern” and embraces government-paid college tuition for all, parents will have to continue to experience the burn of college expenses.

This case is just a reminder that guideline child support can be a mere starting point when there are extraordinary expenses of a child that must be satisfied.

 

 

 

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