Getting a divorce in Singapore for expats is a lot more complicated than it is for Singaporeans. Firstly, there’s the issue of jurisdiction, or the country where the divorce should be ruled. It can be even more complex if you’re from two different home countries – Indonesia and France, for example. Then there’s the matter of contested and uncontested divorces, and their differences. Contesting a divorce at the wrong stage of the game can cost you thousands of dollars in legal and court fees.
MUNTAZ ZAINUDDIN is a Partner at IRB Law. Here, she goes through the flow of getting divorced in Singapore for expats.
The first question to ask is: Does your marriage qualify for a divorce under Singapore law? According to Muntaz, there are certain jurisdictional requirements that need to be considered under an act of Singaporean law known as the Women’s Charter. To start the process of getting a divorce in Singapore for expats (for everyone, in fact), you must prove the following:
- That one of the two parties is domiciled here. This is usually proven through citizenship and/or residency. Or;
- That in the event that both parties aren’t domiciled here, you may rely on habitual resident if either party has been living in Singapore for the past three years. This includes parties who are here on an Employment or Work Pass.
Since the requirement is only for either party to meet the jurisdiction rather than both, it would be fulfilled so long as the husband (for example) has been here for three years, even if the wife has just joined him.
This requirement is important. Courts don’t want clients flying here just for divorces because the laws may suit them more than in other countries. For example, in Singapore, if the husband is incapacitated, the woman may be asked to maintain him; this is a scenario that wouldn’t be possible in some other countries.
If you’ve met the jurisdictional requirement, the next issue that may arise for expat divorces is whether the divorce should take place here or elsewhere.
A party may be more comfortable with divorce proceedings being in their home country – or, for that matter, any other suitable country they’ve lived in. This is especially true if the law of that country is more beneficial to them. For example, in certain states in America and Australia, the division of marital assets is usually 50/50. In Singapore, the factors considered include length of marriage, and the direct and indirect contributions before a marital asset is divided. For example, an Indonesian man who’s married to a non-Indonesian wife might prefer to divorce in his home country as a non-Indonesian would have problems owning land in Indonesia.
In such cases, the party who is objecting to Singapore’s jurisdiction may file for a stay of proceedings. This means that even if, for example, the wife commences divorce here, the husband can contest the jurisdiction of the court by filing a stay application.
The court in Singapore would then need to decide if there is another country with an available and more appropriate forum. Considerations might include if the couple has lived in another country for a long period of time; or, if the marital issues are easier dealt with in that country. In these cases, the court will pause proceedings until the divorce proceeds there.
Once you’ve met the jurisdiction and both parties agree to proceed in Singapore, what do you need to look at next?
Stage 1 of proceedings
Muntaz says that divorce is only granted in Singapore if a marriage has irretrievably broken down. Within this, there are five “particulars” or reasons:
- Adultery: This is common among expats, especially in situations where one partner has come to Singapore much earlier than the other, or when the other has been left behind in the home country.
- Unreasonable behaviour: This is the most common grounds, and can cover many factors, from being extremely messy, argumentative or abusive to being irresponsible with money.
- Separation with consent: You’ve been separated for three years with consent, which means you’re not having a sexual relationship with each other (you live in different rooms, homes or countries), and you carry on separate lives. This is the most uncontentious particular to divorce.
- Separation without consent: You’ve been separated for four years, but without consent from the other party.
- Desertion: This is very rare; it usually pertains to situations where the partner has left you high and dry, with no maintenance or care, and with no plans to return.
It’s better at this stage to agree to the particulars of the divorce. It’s often the case that these particulars have no effect on the marital issues to be decided, such as custody of a child or division of assets. For example, in cases of adultery, Muntaz has seen many cases where, at the start of the process, some proof of infidelity (for example, a photograph with a prostitute) is sent to lawyers, employers and friends of the other party and the filing party insists on relying on this particular for the divorce while the opposing party contests it.
Muntaz understands the rage that can be felt with so many aspects of divorce. This is especially true when someone has been “betrayed” by a partner. Unfortunately, it may not help much in the big picture. If parties continue to argue over the particulars, then the matter has to go to court for a trial. This can easily cost each party $15,000 or so; and that’s before you’ve started negotiating important issues surrounding the divorce such as custody and assets. So, it may be better to ensure that the first stage of proceedings doesn’t end up in a trial.
There are times when it may be beneficial to bring up specific issues in this first stage; for example, where one partner is being abusive to the children. This can help with custody fights in the second stage. Plus, a party may want to ensure the particulars are inserted at the first stage of proceedings, even if they have to proceed to trial to introduce the relevant evidence or proof. Be that as it may, Muntaz advises parties to think carefully about doing this. There’s no rule that says you can’t introduce evidence in the second stage, even if you haven’t relied on it in the first stage; so, for example, evidence of abuse towards the children can also be introduced at a later proceeding.
Stage 2 of proceedings
- Almost all divorces are contested because of division of assets. For example, one party may not be aware of the assets acquired by the other party over their journey together. Or, they may suspect the other party is hiding information. There may also be a dispute as to how much each party has contributed to the assets.
- A few years ago, the courts acknowledged that a trailing spouse (one who follows the other party to different countries to work) may be accorded a higher indirect contribution, as they would have given up their lives to follow the other party and make financial and personal sacrifices. Therefore, proof that a party had to quit their job to move to Singapore to support their partner’s career progression is taken into account. Similarly, the working spouse might argue that a trailing spouse could have gone to work because there was a nanny or helper contributing to the home, and that she in fact benefitted from the move. The issue of a trailing spouse’s contribution (or lack thereof) is unique to expat divorces and needs to be considered in the relevant divorce proceedings.
Other than division of assets, there are three other main issues to be decided, commonly referred to as ancillary matters:
- Custody, care and control, and access of children under 21.
- Maintenance of children. (The child must file their own application if they’re over 21 but still require maintenance while pursuing tertiary education.)
- Maintenance of wife.
In deciding these issues, there are aspects the courts examine that are specific to expat divorces. These include whether or not the party who obtains care and control of the child will or could continue to stay in Singapore; also, whether the child will continue their education here or elsewhere. Otherwise, how can one party ensure that the other will continue to have access to the child?
Similarly, if one party is returning to their home country or moving elsewhere, the issue of maintenance is paramount. The incomes and living standards might be different in those places from when they were staying here.
There are other issues that may not be directly relevant to the claims in a divorce proceeding but are nonetheless important to consider if one party is on a Dependants’s Pass (DP). This means that their stay in Singapore is on the basis of their marriage; so, that party needs to consider before or during the filing of divorce whether they’ll lose the right to stay in Singapore after the divorce is finalised.
It’s a tricky issue. Muntaz recalls a case several years ago where a husband cancelled his wife’s DP but not the child’s DP during divorce proceedings in an attempt to separate the wife from the child. Thankfully, she advised the client on the steps to undertake as the main caregiver of the child. The court eventually ruled that the husband had to take steps to reinstate his wife’s DP until the divorce was finalised.
This shows how contentious parties can be when a divorce is commenced – to the point that they can even use children as tools in an effort to strengthen their particular case. Throughout her years as a divorce lawyer, Muntaz has seen many parties act like this to gain control of a situation and slant the proceedings in their favour.
We hope this gives you an idea of things to look at before starting divorce proceedings in Singapore. Of course, nobody should take divorce lightly. Many people think that their problems will end once they’re divorced. This isn’t guaranteed, as complying with orders in relation to division – and especially children – can continue to be an issue.