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Modern Family Law Views – Back to School in Family Law Means Do Your (Legal) Homework

September 1, 2016

Back to School in Family Law Means Do Your (Legal) Homework

Many school related issues arise in the context of family law at this time of year, yet definitive answers are sometimes hard to find.  This is true in disputes over whether to send children to public or private school, what specialized camps or sports activities might be appropriate, and how to pay for college.  When parents disagree, the children still need a resolution to these questions, and usually on a set deadline.  Negotiation intricacies and technical details frequently exacerbate these disputes.  Moreover, the ability to get relief from the courts often is unclear.  Knowledgeable legal advice can be the key to success in these situations.

Parents can strongly disagree over whether to educate a child in public school or private school based on any of several factors.  Family tradition can be one of these; the particular educational needs of the child may be another; and who pays for private school in the context of child support is almost always a concern.  Under Maryland law, in those rare cases where the court is asked to make the decision, these factors are exactly what the law requires that the court consider.  Each case is different, of course, and the family history and circumstances, as well as the available evidence that can be presented to a judge, will be important aspects in the ultimate decision.  Given the stakes, costs for getting to a judge and the risk inherent in a judge making the final call, hiring good counsel to guide negotiation, and the litigation if ultimately needed, is highly recommended.

Another question with no simple answer is how to account for the cost of special programs or summer camps in the context of child support.  Examples include advanced programs for gifted and talented children in music, sports, or any number of other disciplines, that cost more than the ordinary extracurricular or school based activity.  As many parents learn, “your child has talent,” can be code for “this is going to be expensive.”  Given the constraints imposed by the Maryland Child Support Guidelines formula and the complexities involved where families fall outside the income range covered by these Guidelines, easy answers are often elusive.  Again, the guidance of a competent and experienced attorney can save time, heartache from missed opportunities or misguided focus and, in the long run, much money.

Finally, the question of who pays for college comes with both an easy and an unhelpful answer.  In Maryland, a court cannot order either parent to pay for a child’s college education.  The issue, however, is often raised in the context of settlement negotiations.  Adept handling of this issue includes recognition of the parents’ commitment, financial resources, and relative negotiation leverage.  In addition, negotiation of college costs can entail a certain amount of “crystal ball gazing.”  Future imponderables include the child’s needs and desires, evolution of college costs, where the child is ultimately accepted, and changes in the family including new spouses and even half-siblings.  In addition, careful crafting of the wording in any clauses that address college costs is essential to avoid future disagreements that can produce the Hobson’s choice between paying for unforeseen and expensive commitments or litigation to resolve the dispute.

So, where legal issues arise in a school context, the old adage still holds true:  “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!”  The educated advice from an experienced lawyer can help reduce the cost of ignorance and be a better option than “do it yourself” homework.

© 2016 by Hadrian N. Hatfield

Modern Family Law Views is meant as an information tool to help people going through the separation or divorce process and those working with them.

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Hadrian N. Hatfield