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Private School Fees and Child Support

In Australia, parents have a responsibility to financially provide for their children. For separated parents, this often takes the form of child support payments, under a scheme governed by the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989. Child support is designed to cover all the costs of raising a child, including school fees. It can be arranged privately if the parents can come to an agreement, or a parent can apply to have an administrative assessment. Services Australia will make a child support assessment that includes provision for school fees, but if either parent wishes to educate their child at a private school, the calculation becomes more complicated. In a situation where a parent intends for their child to have a private education, the question becomes: who pays the private school fees?

Private School Fees

In Australia, there are three main types of education that parents can select for their children: public, catholic and ‘independent.’ In 2019 there were approximately 2.5 million children in the public school system, almost 770,000 in the catholic school system, and over 584,000 in independent schools. Recent studies have found that the total cost of public school education for one child K-12 in Australia averages around $60,000, compared to approximately half a million for a private school education. Given this huge disparity, a separated parent may naturally have strong opinions on whether their child should attend a private school.

Private School Fees in Child Support Assessments

The child support assessment is designed to account for all of the child’s expenses, including school fees, excursions, uniforms and extra-curricular activities. It is the responsibility of the parent in receipt of the payment to allocate adequate funds for the child’s educational needs. When Services Australia calculates child support, they make an assessment factoring in the cost of a child attending a state school, not a private school. The formula that Services Australia uses assesses variables such as the number of children that the parents share and any children that the parent might have with other people, the taxable income of both parents and the number of nights that the child spends with each parent.

This calculation does not consider whether the parents already pay disproportionate fees for their children to attend private school, or for other high-cost expenses, such as special needs education and equipment. A custodial parent may apply for the court to make a departure order from the administrative assessment in order to account for more expensive school fees.

The registrar will consider several factors in deciding whether to make an amendment to the assessment for child support. One consideration for the court is the degree to which the child’s life will be ‘significantly’ affected if they cannot attend private school. If the registrar finds that the child would not be adversely affected by not attending private school, then the application for change to the child support assessment will be denied.

Previous Agreement to Private School Fees

A more significant factor in the court’s assessment is whether the parents have previously agreed to send their child to a private school. It is not possible to force a parent to pay for private school fees unless there had previously been an agreement between the parents that the child would be educated in this manner. The best evidence of this intention is usually a parent’s signature on a school enrolment form.

In making a judgment of whether the parents agreed to privately educate their child, Services Australia will assess the type of education that the parents intended to give their child, instead of any specific school that the parents might have selected in the past.

If the court is persuaded that the parents have previously agreed that they intend for their child to have a private school education, then Services Australia will reassess its calculations of child support to include a proportionate amount for school fees. If both parents agree that the payment of school fees constitutes a child support payment then the funds are credited as a third party payment.

Non-Agency Payment of Private School Fees

If the recipient parent does not agree to private school fees being a portion of the child support assessment, the paying parent may still be credited for a portion of the school fees that they pay. These contributions are usually called ‘non-agency’ payments. Only parents that have regular care, or 14% or less of time spent with the children may claim a non-agency payment. If a parent is not eligible to claim a non-agency payment because they are a higher level than ‘regular care’, then the parent can apply to Services Australia for a change of assessment. A parent can also apply for a change of assessment if the private school fees significantly impact the child maintenance cost.

If there was no agreement for a child to attend a private school, or no evidence of such an agreement can be presented to the court, then a parent can approach the agency to vary a child support assessment through an internal review process or by applying directly to the court. In this case, the financial circumstances of the parents will be an important factor for consideration. However, just because a parent can afford to fund private school fees is not a sufficient reason in itself for imposing the liability on them.

Any parent considering private school for their child needs to think carefully before signing enrolment payment forms, especially if you intend to apply for a change to child support in order to cover the cost of the schooling. If you default on your obligation to the school, they can impose steep financial penalties. If you have any other questions about private school fees or child support in general, please contact the Family Law team at Armstrong Legal on 1300 038 223 or email us to make an appointment.

Dr Nicola Bowes

This article was written by Dr Nicola Bowes

Dr Nicola Bowes holds a Bachelor of Arts with first class honours from the University of Tasmania, a Bachelor of Laws with first class honours from the Queensland University of Technology, and a PhD from The University of Queensland. After a decade working in higher education, Nicola joined Armstrong Legal in 2020.

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