Getting married? Know your rights, obligations

Mrs Jennifer Yeo, wife of former foreign minister George Yeo, with a copy of the book. It will be sold at major bookstores from Feb 20.
Mrs Jennifer Yeo, wife of former foreign minister George Yeo, with a copy of the book. It will be sold at major bookstores from Feb 20.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Jennifer Yeo's book provides legal know-how for young adults planning to get hitched

Some hesitate to marry because of a long list of fears. Others plunge into marriage after a whirlwind romance without thinking twice.

At a time when the institution of marriage in Singapore is seeing certain trends - with more marrying later and more divorcing - a new book hopes to equip Singaporeans with the legal know-how to understand what they are getting themselves into when they marry, and their rights if things turn sour.

It is written by lawyer Jennifer Yeo, wife of former foreign minister George Yeo, and is believed to be the first here that targets young adults on the issues of family law.

Mrs Yeo, 58, decided to write the book after noticing an increasing number of young couples with troubled marriages going to her firm for legal advice. She declined to give figures.

"Alarmingly, many young couples impulsively enter into it without knowing or considering its legal, economic and social consequences," said Mrs Yeo, chairman and founder of law firm Yeo-Leong & Peh LLC.

  • Local court cases from the book

  • WHO DID I MARRY?

    A woman underwent a sex reassignment procedure when she was 35. She changed her name to Eric, and her identity card was amended to reflect that she was male. Three years later, Eric got married. After a prolonged period of failing to consummate the marriage, Eric finally admitted to his wife that he was a transsexual. Feeling deceived, the woman tried to annul the marriage on the basis that Eric was biologically a female. This took place in 1991.

    What the law says
    Their marriage was declared void as the court held then that a person's gender was determined biologically. The case, however, resulted in a change in the Women's Charter in 1996. Under today's law, the marriage between Eric and his wife would be legal as the sex reassignment procedure would render Eric a male and Eric's gender would be determined by that stated in his identity card.

  • THE RUNAWAY WIFE

    Mr Ng was 42 and hoped to start a family of his own. Through an agency, he entered into an arranged marriage with a 21-year-old woman from China. After the wedding, she repeatedly refused intimacy with him and frequently stayed over at a friend's place. Five months later, she returned to China and never came back. In a phone call to Mr Ng, she said the marriage was a mistake and she would "rather die" than return to him.

    What the law says
    A marriage must last at least three years before a divorce can be granted. However, the law makes exceptions under certain conditions. The court found that Mr Ng had entered into the marriage wholeheartedly. To force him to wait for the three-year time bar to expire would be to make him pay for his wife's wrongdoing. He was granted a divorce.

  • ONE CHILD, TWO PRESCHOOLS

    Their marriage was deteriorating and, a week before the birth of their daughter, the wife left the matrimonial home to live with her parents. The couple disagreed on many things, including which preschool their daughter should attend. In the end, they sent her to both - she had to go to one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. During the divorce proceedings, the husband appealed to the court for shared care and control of his daughter.

    What the law says
    The court refused to grant shared care and control of the child to both parents as they had very different ideas about how to bring her up. The mother, whom the child was closer to, was given sole care and control. As a result, the girl no longer needed to attend two schools. Her father was allowed to visit her for four hours every weekday and six hours on Saturdays.

"Many (marriages) have come to grief, resulting in rising divorce numbers and people who choose cohabitation over marriage," she added.

There were 7,522 divorces and annulments in 2015, the third-highest annual figure on record.

Marriages are also breaking up far more often and at an earlier stage than those in the past.

Among those who married in 2003, 16.1 per cent went their separate ways within a decade.

This is around double the 8.7 per cent for the 1987 cohort.

Some marriages ended barely before they began, with the number of annulments under the Women's Charter hitting a 20-year high of 446 in 2014.

An annulment is a legal procedure for declaring a marriage null and void. It usually happens early on in the marriage, with one of the most common reasons being non-consummation of the marriage.

Mrs Yeo sees her new book - I Want To Marry You But... A Marriage Guide For The Young Adult - as a form of social mission to help young people navigate complicated legal rights, responsibilities and implications that come with marriage, divorce and parenthood.

It covers topics such as pre-marital disclosure for dating couples, property rights and financial obligations for married couples, abortion, and maintenance and division of assets in the event of a divorce.

Questions that are tackled in the book include: Should a couple sign a pre-nuptial agreement before they get married? Can a woman keep her maiden name after marriage? Is a woman's boyfriend or husband allowed to force her to go for an abortion?

The book took Mrs Yeo three years to write, with the assistance of younger law trainees.

Mrs Yeo, who has a daughter and three sons who are all in their 20s, has already given each of her children a copy of the book.

"May the book encourage young people to have long-lasting and successful marriages," she said.

"For the cynic, I hope the book will allay fears or spawn a better understanding of what marriage entails. For the romantic, I hope they are alerted to the potential consequences of a 'spur of the moment' decision."

The book will be sold at $19.80 at major bookstores from Feb 20.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2017, with the headline 'Getting married? Know your rights, obligations'. Print Edition | Subscribe