Tougher for ex-spouses to skip paying maintenance

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

But challenges remain, say lawyers, with over 2,000 enforcement applications filed yearly

Part-time clerk S. Chia has been waging a 16-year battle.

Since her divorce in 2001, she has been trying to get her former husband to pay the monthly maintenance of $500 for herself and their two children aged 18 and 20.

Following amendments to the Women's Charter in 2011, a new measure implemented by the authorities gave her extra ammunition: She was able to apply to court to get his employer to pay her directly from his salary. He was then working as a manager.

But he resigned the next month.

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So she had to go back to court to apply for yet another enforcement order. He owes her about $10,000 in maintenance arrears.

"He won't pay until I take out an enforcement order. It's very tiring to keep taking out such orders," laments Ms Chia, who earns just over $1,000 a month.

 

Her headache underscores the continued challenges that some broken families face in compelling breadwinners to provide financial support, despite more efforts since 2011 to make them do so.

Last year, there were 2,651 applications for the enforcement of maintenance orders. This is a drop of 11 per cent from the 2,979 applications filed six years ago.

Lawyers say the number of enforcement applications has been gradually falling since 2011, when a host of measures were implemented to tackle the problem.

For example, the courts can direct an employer to pay the defaulter's wages to the person entitled to it, as Ms Chia did.

Defaulters can also be ordered to attend financial counselling or perform community service.

Host of measures to tackle maintenance payment woes

Divorcees who are remarrying must also make a statutory declaration if they have any maintenance arrears. This is to remind them of their obligations to their former partners and to ensure their new spouses are aware of this.

If the person refuses to make a declaration or if the Registry of Marriages (ROM) suspects he or she is not telling the truth, the ROM will not issue a marriage licence for the couple, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Social and Family Development, under which the ROM comes.

The Straits Times understands that the ROM has not denied anyone a marriage licence so far because of this.

As of last December, 1,646 people who were remarrying have declared their maintenance arrears.

Lawyer Rajan Chettiar said of the falling numbers: "I think more people (who are supposed to pay maintenance) realise they cannot play punk and get away with it."

Lawyer Ivan Cheong notes that in recent years, more couples are settling their divorces and ancillary issues such as maintenance through mediation, instead of a more adversarial approach where they fight it out in court and a judge makes orders deciding who gets what.

When the couple agree during mediation on terms such as the amount of maintenance to be given each month, they are also more likely to comply with these terms. Hence, they may be fewer defaults, he said.

However, lawyer Malathi Das pointed out that not getting maintenance is still a major problem for many people, with over 2,000 enforcement applications filed a year.

Besides monetary woes, this often leads to other problems, lawyers say. For example, some women block their former husbands from visiting their children since they are not paying maintenance. And the children become estranged from their fathers.

Almost three in four applications last year were filed by women to get their former husbands to pay the sums meant to support them, their children or both. The rest of the applicants included current wives, and men who were chasing their former wives for financial support for their children.

An application for enforcement can be filed when at least one payment is not made.

Last year, the law was also amended to allow men incapacitated by illness or disability and who are unable to support themselves to ask for maintenance for themselves from their wives or former wives.

However, no man in such circumstances has filed for maintenance yet, a Family Justice Courts spokesman told The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2017, with the headline 'Tougher for ex-spouses to skip paying maintenance'. Print Edition | Subscribe