PARLIAMENT

MPs debate maintenance payouts for men

Only one group of men apply for maintenance from their former wives: those who cannot support themselves, whether owing to illness or severe disability.
Only one group of men apply for maintenance from their former wives: those who cannot support themselves, whether owing to illness or severe disability. PHOTO THE NEW PAPER FILE

Wives may contribute more to the family's coffers these days but, on the whole, they are still more vulnerable than men after a divorce.

For this reason, the Women's Charter will be changed to let only one group of men apply for maintenance from their former wives: those who cannot support themselves, whether owing to illness or severe disability.

Previously, only women could apply for alimony from their former spouses; men could not.

Explaining the reasoning for the change, which Parliament approved yesterday, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said: "While we may review it in future, the proposal to extend maintenance only to incapacitated men is a calibrated measure.

"It strikes a balance at this stage of our societal development," he said at the end of a nearly three-hour debate on amendments to the Women's Charter.

The change was prompted by an increase in dual-income families in which both the husband and wife work, and by a small but rising number of wives being the main breadwinners, said Mr Tan.

The 10 MPs who spoke agreed it was fair that incapacitated men be allowed to apply for maintenance, but differed on whether more men should be eligible.

Some argued that alimony should be based on need, not gender. But others noted that women, as a group, tended to be more financially vulnerable.

Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh, who was sworn in yesterday, said courts should be allowed to decide maintenance based on both parties' contributions to the household and their potential earning power.

Similarly, Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) said men who quit their jobs to become house-husbands should be eligible for maintenance.

Mr Seah asked the Government to recognise the contributions of stay-at-home men and said that while the group was small, their cause was no less just.

Mr Tan did not say how many incapacitated former husbands would benefit from the change.

Four MPs said that while women have progressed since the Women's Charter was enacted in 1961, there are areas where women, on the whole, lag behind men.

Said Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), a family lawyer: "While the ministry takes steps to keep pace with societal changes, there is a need to recognise that the majority of women still lag behind their male counterparts, especially financially."

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) noted that caregiving responsibilities fell mainly on women, and many put their jobs on hold to raise children.

It made them more financially vulnerable after a divorce, as they might find it harder to find a job after leaving the workforce.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) asked if maintenance payouts would be an extra burden on divorced women already struggling to support their families.

Responding to such concerns, Mr Tan said there are strict criteria for an incapacitated husband to meet before he can apply for maintenance from his wife.

The courts will consider all the circumstances, including the income and earning capacity of the wife, financial needs of both parties, and needs of their children.

Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Ms Lee also called for stricter measures against deadbeat dads. They related how some women have to go to court every few months to get their former husbands to pay up.

Mr Tan said his ministry will introduce a pool of officers as part of its tougher stance against men who can afford to pay but refuse to. These officers will help the court assess if someone truly will not or cannot pay the maintenance.

Firm action will be taken if he is incorrigible, said Mr Tan.

He added: "We intend to stop such irresponsible behaviour."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline 'MPs debate maintenance payouts for men'. Print Edition | Subscribe