Base spousal maintenance on need, not gender, say social groups, family lawyers


Some suggest change, but others say women still lag behind men in workforce

Spousal maintenance should be based on need, not gender, some social groups and family lawyers have suggested, in response to a judge's comment that this was not the "unalloyed right" of a woman.

Agreeing that such payments should not be awarded based solely on gender, they said men should be allowed to seek maintenance from their ex-wives too.

Currently, in a divorce, a court may order either parent to pay maintenance for the child under the Women's Charter, and a small number of these cases involve women paying their ex-husbands. But spousal maintenance applies only to the support of wives.

Both the Centre for Fathering and the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) said this should apply to husbands too.

Ms Jolene Tan, Aware's programmes and communications senior manager, said the orders should be "made on the basis of fairness, not gender".

In decision grounds released on Monday on why he rejected a woman's $120,000 lump sum maintenance claim from her former spouse, Justice Choo Han Teck said a woman truly independent and equal in marriage would not need maintenance.

The man is a senior prison officer, while she is a regional sales manager of a multinational firm. He pays her maintenance for their child of $1,000 a month.

The judge also suggested that a wider Marriage Charter might one day replace the Women's Charter.

Some lawyers interviewed by The Straits Times said the law to protect women has not moved with the times or practices of other developed countries.

Family lawyer Malathi Das, first vice-president of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, said the 1961 Women's Charter was passed at a time when "men were seen to be the dominant financial provider". She said the charter should be gender- neutral to acknowledge women's increasing earning power.

Lawyer Gloria James of Gloria James-Civetta & Co noted that laws in countries such as Britain and the United States allow men to claim maintenance.

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan said that even if spousal maintenance becomes gender-neutral, the law should still be applied carefully as women still tend to bear the greater burden of caring for the family.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development said it had considered calls for spousal maintenance to be gender-neutral in 2011, but concluded that "we were not ready as a society then".

Women's participation rate in the resident workforce is still lower than men's. This was 58.1 per cent, compared with 75.8 per cent for men, last year. Women also tend to care for the children after divorce, she said.

The ministry will study the matter again when it next reviews the Women's Charter, she added, but did not say when this would be.

Fei Yue Family Service Centres' senior assistant director Rachel Lee and lawyer Tan Poh Lin of Harry Elias Partnership also preferred the law to stay the same, citing similar reasons.

But Mrs Florence Lim, director of Covenant Family Service Centre, recalls the case of a divorced couple in which the man suffered from depression and was unemployed, while the woman had a job. He struggled to pay maintenance for his three children and would have had it worse had she sought spousal support.

"The basis of awarding maintenance payments should be based on the spouse's needs and one's ability to work," Mrs Lim said.

Factors in maintenance

  • The income, earning power, property and other financial resources of both parties now and in future.
  • The financial needs and responsibilities of both parties now and in future.
  • The standard of living enjoyed by the family before the marriage broke down.
  • The age of the husband, that of the wife/former wife and the duration of the marriage.
  • Any physical or mental disability of the husband or wife/former wife.
  • The contributions made by each party to the family.
  • Any potential losses suffered as a result of divorce or nullifying the marriage.