Breaking up is hard to do, but an expat divorce abroad is a whole different story. Getting divorced in Singapore as a foreigner is a lot more complicated than it is for locals. Here, legal experts walk us through Singapore divorce law and the process for expat divorce – from filing for a divorce here and jurisdiction to splitting assets, child custody and more.
Filing for expat divorce in Singapore: The first steps
JACQUELINE CHUA, founder of Jacque Law LLC, has extensive experience in all aspects of family law, including handling divorces, disputes relating to maintenance and division of assets, and cross-border custody disputes. Her expertise also extends to advising on prenuptial agreements as well as on wills, probate and estate matters. As part of her practice she also advises on employment law and medical law.
She explains that if you’re considering expat divorce, you are entitled to file for divorce against your spouse in Singapore if:
- you’ve been married for at least three years; and
- you or your spouse have been living in Singapore for three continuous years immediately prior to the divorce, or your spouse is a Singapore citizen.
Once you’re sure you meet the criteria for expat divorce here, think about whether the Singapore court is the most appropriate jurisdiction for your situation. Could there be another court in another country that is more appropriate? Consider filing in your birth country, or the country where you were married.
Decide if there are enough factors connecting you to Singapore, such as the location of the matrimonial assets, where the children are being educated, and the future plans of you and your spouse. Consider if there are any reasons why a divorce in Singapore would be more favourable for you in your circumstances.
If you disagree with your partner’s decision to have the divorce governed by Singapore divorce law, you should be careful before responding or taking any step in the divorce proceedings. If your response is deemed as accepting the jurisdiction of the Singapore court, you may have jeopardised your chances in divorcing your spouse in another country.
It’s best to seek legal advice on these issues early to identify if Singapore is the most appropriate forum to determine your expat divorce. Know the steps to take in the event that that parallel divorce proceedings are commenced in another country.
Jacque Law LLC
#21-08 SBF Center Singapore, 160 Robinson Road
6280 7388 | jacquelaw.com
Contested vs uncontested divorce proceedings
RAJAN CHETTIAR is the founder and director of Rajan Chettiar LLC and specialises in family law, collaborative family law and mediation. If the relationship is relatively amicable, clients often want uncontested divorces, explains Rajan. It’s easiest for all involved, and happens when the couple reaches agreement on the divorce and associated matters such as custody of children, maintenance and division of matrimonial assets. The family lawyer then draws up the papers and obtains an uncontested divorce for the couple within four to five months from the filing date.
The other type of uncontested divorce is when a couple can’t reach full agreement. They file for divorce in the Singapore court and attend a mediation in court to reach an agreement on the divorce and ancillary matters. The usual timeframe for this type of uncontested divorce is around six months from the date of filing.
Contested divorce is when the divorce and the ancillary matters are in dispute. Often, contested divorces become uncontested through court mediation. However, many couples can’t agree on maintenance, division of assets and child custody so the matter goes to a contested hearing. This process involves collating documents, filing three rounds of Affidavits and preparing for the hearing. This hearing is only attended by the lawyers. You can expect this process to take up to one year to reach conclusion.
Rajan Chettiar LLC
#08-08 High Street Centre, 1 North Bridge Road
6533 6451 | rajanchettiar.com
Grounds for divorce in Singapore
In Singapore, divorce proceedings involve two stages, explains SARAH-MAE THOMAS, a Singapore- and Australia-qualified lawyer, and Managing Director of Sarah-Mae Thomas LLC. The firm specialises in family law and juvenile matters, with an international focus. First, the court will deal with the termination of the marriage. Then, the court will deal with ancillary matters such as custody, care and control, access, spouse or child maintenance, division of assets and costs.
The key Singapore divorce law that governs divorce in Singapore is known as The Women’s Charter 1961. It provides that either party to a marriage may file a writ for divorce on the ground that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. To do this, you must substantiate one of five scenarios. These include:
- Adultery – where one finds it intolerable to live with another.
- Unreasonable behaviour, such as violence.
- Desertion for a continuous period of at least two years.
- Separation for a continuous period of three years, provided the other party agrees to the divorce.
- Separation for a continuous period of four years.
“There’s been an exciting recent development in Singapore divorce law,” says Sarah-Mae. There have been some amendments to the law which propose that parties soon might be allowed to divorce by “mutual agreement”. It has yet to be announced when these amendments will come into effect. This is a concept where both parties are willing to divorce even if no fault was made by either person. However, the court will still have the ultimate power to decide whether to terminate the marriage.
Sarah-Mae Thomas LLC
#08-168 The Central (Soho 2), 12 Eu Tong Sen Street
6011 6767 | sarahmaethomasllc.com
Child custody, care and control in Singapore
SURESHAN KULASINGAM, managing director of Sureshan LLC, has been acting on behalf of a multitude of clients in matrimonial matters since the onset of his practice in the late nineties. He has extensive experience in matters dealing with financially substantial and complex matrimonial estates. His firm also provides commercial and civil litigation advice.
“Custody and care and control of minor children are two key issues to be decided in matrimonial proceedings,” says Sureshan. “Custody” relates to the right of a parent to decide on long-term matters affecting the child’s welfare. “Care and control” relates to the right to take care of the child and to make the day-to-day decisions concerning the child’s upbringing and well-being.
Usually, a joint custody order is made granting custody of the child to both parents. A sole custody order may be made in exceptional circumstances where joint custody would not be in the best interests of the child. The court may alternatively make a no custody order meaning that both parents continue to owe parental responsibility for the child under The Women’s Charter 1961.
Care and control
Orders are commonly made for one party to have sole care and control on the basis it’s considered desirable for a child to have a single caregiver and home. An order for shared care and control may be made where the parents are able to effectively co-parent, and the child is old enough for such an arrangement.
#08-02 Crown @ Robinson, 140 Robinson Road
6816 2156 | sureshanllc.com
Division of property and assets
The division of assets is one of the most disputed matters in a divorce, explains VIVIENE SANDHU, a litigator with more than 24 years of experience in all areas of family law and dispute resolution. Matrimonial assets include all property that’s acquired during the marriage. They can include anything from insurance, shares and businesses to cars, artwork and jewellery. Under Singapore divorce law, the court has the power to order the division of matrimonial assets in a “just and equitable” manner.
To arrive at a fair division of assets, the court takes into account various factors to make sure the parties are treated fairly. Some of these factors include the following:
- the extent of direct financial contributions made by each party in monetary terms;
- the extent of indirect contributions made by each party to the welfare of the family (such as bringing up the children);
- any prenuptial agreements regarding the divisions of assets;
- the needs of the children from the marriage; and,
- the financial independence of each party after divorce.
In addition to these key factors, the length of the marriage and the size of the matrimonial pool of assets accumulated are considered when determining who gets what in an expat divorce. “It’s worth noting that in Singapore assets received as gifts or inheritance are excluded from the matrimonial pool of assets,” says Viviene.
Clifford Law LLP
#08-04 The Adelphi, 1 Coleman Street
6223 4456 | cliffordlaw.sg
Maintenance for spouses and children in Singapore
Like most countries around the world, Singapore divorce law provides for spousal and child maintenance (financial support), explains SIMRIN SINDHU. Simrin is a senior litigation lawyer with more than 20 years of legal experience. You’ll need to prove your spouse has neglected or refused to provide maintenance. If you haven’t yet filed for divorce, you can apply for maintenance by making a Magistrate’s Complaint at the Family Justice Court.
Parents have a legal duty to maintain their children until they turn 21 years old. Also, children over 21 who are still schooling or have physical or mental disabilities can apply for maintenance. Incapacitated and/or disabled spouses can also apply.
The court will consider various factors including current expenses and salary, earning capacity, debts and liabilities. For child maintenance, the financial needs of the child, any physical or mental disability, the standard of living enjoyed, and the income and assets of the parents will be considered.
Lawyers will generally advise women to claim for nominal maintenance as The Women’s Charter does not allow a claim for maintenance if there’s no maintenance order already in place. However, this is not given as of right, and the wife must present reasons to be entitled to a nominal maintenance order. “If your spouse fails to pay maintenance as ordered, you can enforce the order through the courts,” says Simrin.
Amarjit Sidhu Law Corporation
#14-01 Chinatown Point, 133 New Bridge Road
6259 2460 | asl-law.com.sg
With over 25 years of experience in family law and dispute resolution, including serving as a Family Court District Judge, MICHELLE WOODWORTH has a passion for the welfare of children. She helps families reconstruct their lives when marriage breaks down. Michelle practices as a family litigation lawyer, mediation advocate and is a Principal Mediator with the Singapore Mediation Centre.
Michelle knows that domestic violence further aggravates an already difficult marital breakdown situation when a husband and wife decouple. In accordance with Singapore divorce law, a family member may obtain a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against a person if the court is satisfied that family violence has been or is about to be committed. The PPO must also be necessary for the protection of the family member.
Who can apply for a Personal Protection Order?
You can apply for a PPO against a person if you are defined as a family member of the person who has committed family violence. A family member includes:
- a spouse or former spouse;
- a child (including an adopted child and a stepchild);
- a father or mother, a father-in-law or mother-in-law;
- a brother or sister; or
- any other relative, or an incapacitated person who in the opinion of the court should be regarded as a member of the family of the person.
How is family violence defined?
Family violence means one or more of the following acts:
- wilfully or knowingly placing, or attempting to place a family member in fear of hurt;
- causing hurt to a family member by an act which is known or ought to have been known would result in hurt;
- wrongfully confining or restraining a family member against his will; or
- causing continual harassment with intent to cause or knowing that it is likely to cause anguish to a family member.
Family violence and child discipline
Under Singapore law, family violence does not include “any force lawfully used in self-defence, or by way of correction towards a child below 21 years of age,” says Michelle. Lawful correction of a child must be for the purpose of teaching discipline. Such discipline must be for the benefit of the child.
Quahe Woo & Palmer LLC
#02-02 Haw Par Centre, 180 Clemenceau Avenue
6622 0366 | quahewoo.com
Now your expat divorce questions have been answered, you may be considering moving to a new neighbourhood.
This article first appeared in the December 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!