Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from every person, as it is said: “From all my teachers I grew wise.” Pirkei Avot 4.1.
One of the many areas of contention in divorce litigation concerns the education which the parties’ children will receive. Often the battle boils down to whether the children should be attending public school or whether they should be receiving a private school education. In some situations, the disagreement concerns which of two private schools is most appropriate. Much of the fight centers around financial issues. A sampling of salient cases appears below.
As a preliminary matter, the standard which the courts use in ruling on the choice of schools (public v. private) is succinctly set forth in a 2019 decision from a Nassau County case entitled Weissbach v. Weissbach. In this matter, the husband did not wish to pay for the cost of private school. The court noted that, in determining whether to require the father to pay educational expenses, any inquiry must consider the circumstances of the case, the parent’s circumstances, the best interests of the children and the requirements of justice. In that case, the children had been enrolled in private school with the husband’s approval and he was more than able to afford the cost of tuition and other expenses. Accordingly, the court directed that the children continue to receive a private school education and that the father contribute his fair share of the cost.
In Karetny v. Karetny, a Manhattan matter, the parties’ daughter suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder aggravated by stress. The parties had previously agreed that the child would receive an Orthodox Jewish education. After 3 years in the Jewish school, the mother transferred the child to public school. The father objected. On appeal, the court found that the longer day required by the private school had exacerbated the child’s level of stress. The mother’s choice of public school was approved as being in the best interest of the child.
Steinharter v. Steinharter is the title of a Kings County proceeding. Here the question was whether the father had to contribute to the child’s education at an Orthodox Jewish school. The court ordered the father to begin contributing to the child’s education at a Bais Yaakov school once the child had reached the age of five. Since the child was already enrolled in that school, and the father had not objected to this type of education, the court deemed the father to have implicitly consented to contributing to the cost of the school.
Another Kings County case, entitled R.I. v. T.I., concerned the education of a pre-school child. When the case was before the court, the child was two years old and too young to attend yeshiva. The court found that both parents had become observant and maintained a kosher home. The father was directed to contribute his pro-rata share to a yeshiva education. The court noted that the father had provided generous contributions to various yeshivas in the past. As such, the court indicated that it would be incongruous to believe that the father should support other children’s yeshiva educations while contributing nothing toward a comparable education for his own child.
In Weinberger v. Frankel, the mother sought a contribution toward the child’s education at the Hebrew Academy of Rockland. The child had previously attended the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (“HANC”). The father claimed that the new school was more expensive and that his contribution should be based upon the cost of attendance at HANC. After reviewing an earlier stipulation between the parties, the court was convinced that the father had obligated himself to pay his proportionate share of any educational institution chosen by the mother. Accordingly, the husband’s objection to payment of the higher cost was denied.
One of the factors which the courts focus on is whether, and to what extent, there exists a difference in quality between the education in public school and that which is offered by the private school. In Pilkington v. Pilkington, the mother wanted the father to contribute to the cost of the Hillel Day school, a private school. The husband wished not to pay for private school and argued for a public-school education. The court ruled that the mother failed to establish that the public school provided an education inferior to the private school. As a result, the need to attend private school was found to be unnecessary.
In a Queens proceeding known as Durso v. Durso, the subject child had been attending private school throughout her high school education. The father no longer wished to pay for private school. His objection was denied. The court was unwilling to disrupt the child’s academic and social life by making her transfer to a new high school.
Aulicino v. Kaiser was another proceeding involving a dispute over attendance at public school or private school. In that case, the child had attended private school for two years. Thereafter, the child was transferred to a public school. His grades suffered and he was cited for unexcused absences. The child was re-registered in private school and the father was ordered to pay his proportionate share of the child’s private school education. This was deemed necessary to ensure that the child receive a proper education and in order to promote his best interests.
Claims over children’s education are fertile ground for dispute in matrimonial litigation. Unfortunately, parents often find themselves on different wavelengths concerning the proper level of education that their children should be receiving. It is crucial for the parties to prepare to argue these matters in court and that they retain the services of competent and experienced matrimonial counsel.