Maintenance may soon be given based on need, not only gender

SINGAPORE - Men who are incapacitated may soon be able to claim maintenance from the wives they are divorcing.

The idea of awarding maintenance based on need, and not only gender is one of the proposed amendments to the Women's Charter that may be tabled in Parliament after public consultation ends early next year.

Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said this after he joined a women's group dialogue on Wednesday.

Possible changes to the Women's Charter will be based on recommendations released recently by the Family Justice Review Committee, which is reviewing the family justice court system here.

Greater support is also in store for wives whose former spouses default on maintenance payments.

As far back as two decades ago, social activists and lawyers have pushed for the 1961 Women's Charter, designed to protect women's and children's rights, to be updated.

Under the current law, only women can claim alimony from their husband. They are eligible for maintenance regardless of their financial status. Men do not have this right.

Many people have argued that times have changed since then, with more women able to support themselves now because they are working. Some earn as much as, if not more than, their former husbands.

In 2011, the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports had considered calls for spousal maintenance to be made gender-neutral, but concluded that "we were not ready as a society then".

Other countries have already made the shift. In Britain, for instance, spousal maintenance is paid by the man or woman with the higher income to the one with the lower income. It is generally awarded when one party cannot support himself without payments from the other.

Recently, the debate to make Singapore's maintenance laws gender-neutral resurfaced when High Court judge Choo Han Teck rejected a working woman's demand of $120,000 in maintenance from her former husband. The woman earned more than the man, over $200,000 annually, and owned more than twice the assets he did.

The new provision should apply only if the men are incapacitated in some way, such as having severe disabilities, said Mr Chan.

As for women who have not been getting money from their former husbands who have defaulted on payments repeatedly, they may get more help with housing and employment.

The last time the laws were changed was in 2011 when new sanctions, such as financial counselling, community service and attachment of earnings orders, which make the person's employer pay the maintenance money from his monthly wage, were imposed beyond fines and imprisonment.

Yet many divorcees still have to apply repeatedly for enforcement orders each time their former spouses fail to pay up.

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