Lie Chin Chin

The Divorce Process in Singapore: Expectations And Reality

Part 1: Introduction

 
‘Till death do us apart.’ This phrase may be popular in marriage vows, but the reality is that many couples may find themselves drifting apart during the course of their marriage. Notwithstanding that most couples do not enter a marriage with any intention of getting a divorce, there is a possibility that divorce may be the most viable option available.
 
Divorce will probably be one of the most emotionally stressful periods of time for all parties involved, including the divorcing parties, the children of the marriage, and even other family members. Having a relatively smooth divorce process may help to alleviate this stress and pain. Once divorce becomes inevitable, couples should seek to obtain as much information as possible on the divorce process and its implications so that they can have an easier transition into their new phases in life. 
 
Legal processes and documents can be complicated and confusing, especially since legal jargon may be hard to understand. As such, this detailed guide aims to shed light on getting a divorce in Singapore by clarifying and explaining the divorce procedure in Singapore, the costs involved, legal terminology, and common misconceptions pertaining to divorce. 

Part II: Family Law in Singapore

2.1. A Brief History of Family Law in Singapore

While many Singaporeans know that the Women’s Charter regulates divorce for civil marriages in Singapore, they may not be aware of the origins of this piece of legislation. The Women’s Charter was introduced in 1961 to protect and promote the rights of girls and women in Singapore. It has also helped to simplify family and marriage laws in the country. Before that, family law was a mixture of local customs and religions that were interpreted by courts practicing English common law. Not only did this make the legal landscape complicated, it also put married women at a disadvantage as their rights were severely limited. Before the Women’s Charter was enacted, it was very difficult for married women to own property, join the workforce, or gain assets after a divorce because their rights would have been superseded by their husbands’.

The Women’s Charter codifies monogamy and ensures equality in marriage by enabling women to own property and participate in careers separate from their husbands. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for the matrimonial process in Singapore, setting out the divorce procedure, considerations for the division of matrimonial assets, the duties of husbands and wives, and the duties of parents toward their children.

 

The Women’s Charter underwent several revisions to ensure that the due process of marriage and divorce would be as fair as possible to both parties, and that the interests of affected parties, like children of the marriage, would be protected. Among numerous other changes, key changes included the imposition of mandatory parenting programmes for couples who have one child under 21 years’ old but who are unable to agree on matters in the divorce, the requirement of undergoing the mandatory marriage preparation programme where one party to the marriage is under the age of 21, and extension of spousal maintenance to men where they meet certain conditions.

Moreover, the Family Justice Courts (FJC) in Singapore were established in 2014 to better address the needs of families and youths in trouble. The establishment of the FJC allowed for specialised courts that focus on understanding conflicts from the viewpoints of families and any other parties that may be involved. More importantly, the FJC also provides a comprehensive set of resources for families, identifies relevant training for family lawyers and judges to develop family-specific skills, and improves processes related to family proceedings.

Ultimately, the Women’s Charter and the FJC in Singapore aim to ensure the protection of the wellbeing of youths and families in Singapore in relation to any family matters – divorce or otherwise.

2.2. Legal Terminology To Remember During The Divorce Process

For a layperson, legal terminology may be confusing at times. Legal documents also frequently contain several clauses in one sentence, thus rendering legal writing difficult to understand and even ambiguous for those who are not familiar with it. It is very important to understand the key terms frequently used in divorce proceedings so that parties are properly informed of their rights and duties. As such, here are the definitions of the most common legal terms that are used during divorce proceedings in Singapore.

Access

“Access” refers to the time a child spends with the non-custodial parent, who is the parent without care and control of the child.

Ancillary Matters

“Ancillary matters” refer to issues regarding the custody, care and control of children, access to children, maintenance for spouse and children, division of the matrimonial home, division of other matrimonial assets, and costs.

Annulment

“Annulment” refers to a process that completely dissolves and declares a marriage null and void. The marriage is treated as if it had never happened in the first place, and the parties’ legal statuses become ‘single’.

Care and Control

“Care and control” refers to the right to make day-to-day decisions for the children, including what the children eat, what they wear and where they reside.

Custody

“Custody” refers to the right to make significant decisions for the children on matters including those relating to education, religion, medical care and housing of the children. The parent with custody of the children is referred to as the custodial parent.

Child Maintenance

“Child maintenance” refers to a parent’s financial support for a child. In Singapore, the law states that both parents have a legal obligation to provide for their child up to the age of 21 years old, and, in some cases, beyond the age of 21. Examples of when parents are still obliged to maintain their children beyond the age of 21 include when the children are pursuing tertiary education and require their parents’ support, and where the children have some disability.

Collaborative Divorce Process

The “collaborative divorce process” is a conflict management process where a divorcing couple mutually agrees to undergo negotiation to avoid the prolonged and expensive process of a contested divorce. Good divorce lawyers will work together to ensure an amicable outcome for both parties.

Contested Divorce

A contested divorce is one where a divorcing couple is unable to reach an agreement on all the terms of the divorce. The divorcing couple will have to appear in court to offer evidence in support of their respective cases on how the issues should be resolved.

Costs Order

A costs order is a court order that gives directions on how costs for and related to the proceedings are to be paid.

Deed of Separation

For couples who wish to be separated from each other before deciding on a divorce, an agreement can be reached through mutual consent in the form of a Deed of Separation. The Deed of Separation will set out the terms and conditions for the relationship between the spouses during the separation and may include arrangements for the children, maintenance, and division of matrimonial assets.

Domicile

General speaking, a domicile is the country or state in which an individual has his/her permanent home.

Four-Way Negotiations
This procedure may be used before and after parties have filed for divorce. The parties and their divorce lawyers sit through a series of “without prejudice” meetings to try to reach a consensus on the terms of the divorce in order to satisfy the needs of both parties as much as possible.
Interim Judgement
The court will issue an interim judgment and an order containing all the terms of the divorce after both spouses agree to all the terms. The issuance of an interim judgment does not mean that the marriage is dissolved. A 3-month ‘cooling-off period’ will come into force from the date of the interim judgment. This period was instituted to give parties the opportunity for reconciliation.
Judicial Separation
Judicial separation is an alternative arrangement where a married couple is legally separated but not divorced. Judicial separation is a formal separation sanctioned by the court that divides up money and property without ending the marriage.
Spousal Maintenance
Spousal maintenance is a court-ordered or mutually negotiated provision of financial assistance to one’s spouse’s living expenses. This can take the form of a periodic payment or a lump-sum payment.
Matrimonial Assets
Matrimonial assets refer to any assets acquired by a couple in the course of their marriage, used by either the party or their children. Matrimonial assets also include assets acquired prior to the marriage but significantly enhanced during the marriage. Examples of matrimonial assets include the matrimonial home, family investments, CPF accounts, family businesses, shares, etc.
Respondent
The respondent is the party against whom the divorce application is filed.
Statement of claim
The statement of claim specifies the facts on which the applicant relies in order to ask the Court for the grant of divorce.
Uncontested Divorce
A divorce is uncontested when both spouses agree to all the terms of the divorce.

Writ of Divorce

A writ of divorce is the document which the applicant for a divorce order must first bring before the Court so that the divorce process can be formally commenced against their spouse.

 

There are many more legal terms used during the divorce process in Singapore. In order to be as informed and prepared as possible, a divorcing couple should always seek to clarify all terminology with their divorce lawyers. This ensures that each party understands the facts and options laid out before them and can make an informed decision accordingly.

2.3. Is Divorce The Best Solution?

For many couples in troubled marriages, divorce is an option that can be seriously considered. However, divorce may not always be the best solution for the issues that a couple seeks to resolve. There are other alternatives that couples can consider; these include annulment and separation.  In this section, the requirements and the process of each of these options will be outlined so that couples can make a more informed decision on what the best solution for themselves may be.

1. Annulment

As aforementioned, an annulment refers to the procedure of considering a marriage completely null and void. When a couple annuls their marriage, they can legally return to having a ‘single’ status. This differs from when parties undergo a divorce. Following a divorce, both parties will be legally recognised as having a ‘divorced’ status. This is because the main aim of an annulment is to prove that the marriage should not have happened in the first place as the marriage is either an invalid marriage or was not legal in the first place. These are also known as ‘voidable marriages’ or ‘void marriages’ respectively.

 

A voidable marriage is legally recognised until it has been annulled by a judgment of nullity. Examples of when a marriage is voidable include:

  • When either or both parties did not have the mental fitness to agree to the marriage
  • Where there is non-consummation of the marriage due to inability or refusal 
  • When a spouse had a sexually transmitted infection at the time of the marriage and did not inform their partner

 

In contrast, a void marriage is what the law in Singapore deems to be a non-marriage due to some illegality. Examples of void marriages include:

  • A marriage in which one or both parties are underage 
  • An incestuous marriage
  • A polygamous marriage

Another thing to note is that since the marriage is considered to have never existed in the first place, the Courts will return all property and debts to the original owner. This benefits parties who wish to regain ownership over their original properties.

Annulment of marriage can be applied for by couples who have been married for less than 3 years, and can only be granted if the marriage meets any of the specified circumstances listed above.

 

2. Separation

Separation is often considered one of the most ideal options as there are fewer requirements for couples to meet. Moreover, since parties are still considered legally married, this is a good option for parties who would like to continue fulfilling their religious commitments, or who may want to avoid any social stigma attached to divorce. As separation for 3 continuous years or more can, in some cases, be used as a fact to prove grounds for divorce, it can thus be considered a precursor to divorce by some couples.

In Singapore, the 3 ways in which couples typically become separated are via informal separation, separation pursuant to a Deed of Separation and judicial separation.

  • Informal separation
    Informal separation is the most affordable and flexible option available, as couples try to reach a mutual agreement on the terms of the separation on their own. If parties want their separation to be recognised by the court eventually, they should ensure physical separation and stop all spousal duties, including, providing household maintenance, eating meals together, and doing each other’s household chores. This shows that both spouses are leading completely independent lives and no longer maintain a marital partnership.

  • Separation pursuant to a Deed of Separation
    The Deed of Separation is a legally binding document based on the parties’ mutual agreement that can either be drafted by the couple or by a lawyer. The Deed of Separation provides legal documentation of the parties’ mutual decision to live separate lives, records when the separation commenced and how the parties’ assets and relationship are to be governed during the separation, including how parties can maintain an appropriate distance from one another to prove irretrievable breakdown of marriage in the event of divorce. The Deed of Separation provides some insight into how life may be in the event of a divorce, and provides some measure of protection and certainty over the division of parties’ assets and/or maintenance issues in the event of the commencement of the 
    divorce process.

  • Judicial separation
    Judicial separation is a formal court application and is more costly than obtaining a Deed of Separation. Under a decree of judicial separation, parties are legally separated but not divorced. In order to apply for judicial separation, parties must have been married for at least 3 years, and the applicant must be able to prove that there has been an irretrievable breakdown of marriage due to adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour.

3. Divorce

Compared to the two options discussed above, divorce has the most stringent requirements, and factors in the length of the marriage, the place of habitual residence of the parties, and the reasons for divorce.

 

In order to be eligible to file for a divorce in Singapore, both parties must have been married for at least three years. For foreigners seeking to file for divorce, they must also comply with the additional condition of either having lived in Singapore for at least 3 years leading up to the application or showing plans to live in Singapore indefinitely.

In cases of serious depravity or hardship, the courts may be able to grant a divorce to those who have been married for less than three years. Examples of this involve severe emotional distress, physical or mental abuse, or unusually cruel adultery.

 

The next step is to provide a reason for the divorce. In Singapore, the only ground for divorce is irretrievable breakdown of marriage. There are 5 factors that parties can rely on to prove irretrievable breakdown of marriage:

 

  • Adultery – cheating on the spouse with another person 
  • Unreasonable behaviour 
  • Desertion (abandonment) of at least 2 years 
  • Separation of at least 3 consecutive years with mutual consent 
  • Separation of at least 4 consecutive years without mutual consent
  •  

Once the court is satisfied that there has been an irretrievable breakdown of marriage, the divorce will be granted. At this stage, the court will then begin to consider how to deal with ancillary matters such as children’s issues, maintenance, and division of matrimonial assets.

 

Parties undergo an uncontested divorce, which is usually the best and quickest way of getting a divorce, when they can agree on the reason for the divorce and can come to a consensus on how the ancillary matters should be resolved. However, where parties are unable to reach a mutual agreement on any aspect of the divorce, they will have to go through a contested divorce. This may result in a protracted and costly procedure that may prove difficult for both parties. As such, it is important for both parties to engage a good divorce lawyer in Singapore to ensure that all their needs are met and that their interests are protected as much as possible.

Part III: The Reality of Getting Divorced In Singapore

3.1. 5 Tips To Determine Whether A Divorce Lawyer is A Good Divorce Lawyer in Singapore

For couples going through a divorce, they would want to engage a competent lawyer who is able to ensure that the divorce process is as smooth as possible and who can help to reduce the stress and emotional impact of divorce. As such, there are 5 guidelines for individuals to follow when determining the best divorce lawyer for their needs.

1. The divorce lawyer should have the competence and capacity to offer the services that clients need

As the most basic requirement, a good divorce lawyer should offer services that clients are looking for – be it mediation, litigation, or just drafting and signing a few documents. They must also be well-versed in the divorce procedure in Singapore and be able to offer recommendations based on their past experiences and understanding of how the courts work. Many law firms’ websites often include a page containing all their lawyers’ profiles. Individuals can read through to these webpages to see which lawyer would best suit their needs. Alternatively, they can also talk to lawyers face to face and decide for themselves.

2. The divorce lawyer should have a good track record

Individuals should read up on as many reviews as possible when engaging a divorce lawyer or a law firm. This may include looking at Google and Facebook reviews or asking friends and family members. Legal services are a largely personal service; the way people relate their experiences with a lawyer is often a good indication of how that lawyer may deal with the divorce process. As a result, it is always good to look into a lawyer’s track record and ask for client reviews so that comparisons and informed decisions can be made.

3. The divorce lawyer must be registered in the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) of Singapore’s directory of lawyers

The law is ever-changing to reflect shifting societal norms, attitudes and priorities. Lawyers must always remain up to date on any new regulations being introduced and any amendments being made to the law so that they can help their clients to the best of their abilities. This is why lawyers must renew their Practicing Certificates every year to ensure that they remain up to the standards of the Bar. Since it is an offence to practise law in Singapore without a Practising certificate, individuals must refer to the directory of lawyers, that is regularly updated by the LSRA, to ensure that the lawyer they are consulting is licensed.

4. The divorce lawyer should be strategic in identifying the client’s goals and issues, and creative to effect solutions

A good divorce lawyer will strive to clarify the priorities and expectations of an individual going through a divorce. That way, they can formulate the best approach to the problem and know how best to advocate for and protect their client’s interests. As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of legal jargon involved in law documents. As such, a good divorce lawyer will also make sure to explain the divorce process in a way that enables the client to gain a full understanding of the process. Although it is not always the case, these skills often come with experience. This is why lawyers who have been practising for many years and have a good track record are typically in high demand.

 

5. The individual should feel comfortable with their divorce lawyer

At the end of the day, if the individual does not feel comfortable with their lawyer, it may be difficult for them to express their desired goals. An individual’s level of comfort is subjective and can only be ascertained when the individual interacts with the lawyer. Nevertheless, a client may feel a degree of security in and derive some comfort from an empathetic lawyer who places emphasis on their client’s wellbeing.

3.2. The Cost of Getting a Divorce In Singapore

The cost of divorce is not a subject that comes up in everyday conversations. The cost of divorce includes lawyer’s fees, legal fees, as wells as costs incurred for disbursements (e.g. fees incurred for the filing of divorce papers, court fees, etc). Parties must also consider the money needed to comply with court orders on the division of matrimonial assets and for the payment of spousal and child maintenance. These sums will add up, and divorce can often end up becoming very emotionally and financially draining.

 

To help couples better prepare themselves for the financial aspects of divorce, the diagram below shows a breakdown of the starting prices of divorce, annulment, and separation in Singapore.

As most lawyers charge by the hour, it is safe to say that the quicker a couple comes to a mutual agreement of all the terms of a divorce, the less expensive it will be. With less paperwork and labour involved, fewer costs will be incurred. For uncontested divorces and annulments, in which the paperwork is relatively straightforward, some law firms may offer fixed-cost packages that ensure cost savings.

When it comes to deciding on the amount of spousal and/or child maintenance, there are a few factors that the court takes into consideration. These factors are:

  • Whether one party is at a significant economic disadvantage after the divorce.
  • Whether one party has sole custody of the child/ren.
  • The length of the marriage.

The issue of child maintenance is more clearly defined as the law states that both parents have a duty to provide for their children until they reach the age of 21. However, the issue of spousal maintenance is less clear-cut as this will depend largely on the financial statuses of both parties, the percentage of matrimonial assets each party receives, and whether the courts deem it necessary in the first place.

3.3. 2 Key Myths of Divorce Debunked

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to matters regarding the law. When it comes to misconceptions about the divorce process in Singapore, it is usually about the division of matrimonial assets and determining child custody, care, and control. As such, this section will debunk 2 key myths so that individuals who are planning to file for divorce will be equipped with accurate information.

A commonly held belief is that matrimonial assets will always be divided in half during divorce proceedings. This is false since the courts will split the matrimonial assets in a ‘just and equitable’ manner that takes many factors into account, including the financial positions of the spouses. The division of matrimonial assets is usually measured by devising ratios that assess the direct financial contributions as well as the indirect contributions of each party to the marriage. Indirect contributions to the marriage include time spent caring for the household and time spent caring for any children to the marriage. These ratios are then combined, with the weight to be ascribed to each ratio varying based on various factors that the court will take into account, including the length of the marriage and the needs of the children. As such, an equal split of matrimonial assets is not always guaranteed.

 

Another commonly held belief is the assumption that fathers have fewer parental rights and that mothers always get custody of the child/ren after a divorce. In reality, parents will typically get joint custody of the child/ren, and will have to make important decisions regarding the child/ren jointly. Apart from joint custody, issues of care and control and access arise. As aforementioned, care and control deals with the day-to-day decisions made for the child/ren, and access issues relate to the time that the non-custodial parent gets to spend with the child/ren. These issues are very much dependent on the individual circumstances of each case, and the courts’ paramount consideration is to ensure that the welfare and the best interests of the child/ren are secured during the divorce process. It is notable that ex-spouses cannot deny access to the child/ren – to prevent such denial of access, the FJC implemented a supervised visitation programme in 2016 to help parents and children who were affected by a divorce that ended badly. The courts will thus look to make fair and just decisions on custody, care and control and access issues, and will always consider the child/ren’s welfare and interests to be the paramount consideration.

Part IV: Conclusion

Divorce is never straightforward, but the process can be made less difficult if individuals seek to become more informed and if they are able to find a good divorce lawyer to protect and advocate for their interests. With so many things to consider, such as negotiating on the terms of the divorce, the division of matrimonial assets, and dealing with issues on child custody and care and control, it is imperative that an experienced lawyer is engaged to help parties navigate through the complex issues presented in divorce proceedings.

 

Our team of experienced lawyers are here to help you experience a smooth divorce process in Singapore! Contact us today to find out more.

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