Amicable divorce could lead to cooperation on finances, parenting: Legal experts

The Government had proposed new changes to the Women's Charter in Parliament last week. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Allowing couples to divorce by mutual consent could improve cooperation on parenting and financial matters, said experts.

A consensual, non-acrimonious divorce, lawyers said, could also lead to fewer incidences of repeated enforcement of maintenance orders and child access orders.

The Government proposed new changes to the Women's Charter in Parliament last Monday (Nov 1), one of which was introducing a sixth fact for divorce termed "divorce by mutual agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage" (DMA) that enables couples to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage.

Senior associate director at PKWA Law Practice Dorothy Tan said divorce by mutual agreement would be a welcome change as it removes the need for the divorcing couple to rehash their marital disputes in order to prove to the court the irretrievable breakdown of their marriage.

Ms Tan cited cases of couples who wanted to end their marriage without placing blame on either spouse.

"We have been asked countless times whether they still need to state the other person's unreasonable behaviour when they have both agreed the marriage has come to an end. Some also ask whether the language can be neutralised to simply state that they have mutually decided that they are unable to see eye-to-eye on matters.

"This is especially damaging when there are children the parties still have to co-parent after the divorce. Quite a few couples who come for a simplified track divorce are actually still on amicable terms and want to preserve it," she said.

Singapore law currently states one ground for divorce - the irretrievable breakdown of marriage - under which parties have to prove one of five facts. There are three fault-based facts for divorce: adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion. There are two facts of separation: separation of three years with the spouse's consent and four years' separation without consent.

Couples who file for divorce under the simplified track - where parties do not contest the fact cited by their spouses - account for 60 per cent of divorces here.

The amendments to the Women's Charter also include proposed changes to the enforcement of child access orders.

These include counselling, educating couples on parenting and co-mediation, where two or more mediators work together to help parties resolve their dispute.

Harsher measures include compensation for time and expenses, for instance, if a parent paid for holiday accommodation or travel fare for their children but was deprived of child access by their former spouse.

The measures also include performance bonds and security pledges, and in certain cases, fines or imprisonment.

The Government is also considering introducing changes to the enforcement of maintenance orders next year.

During a media briefing on the amendments, Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling said divorce could have a negative effect on children, particularly in cases where parents were uncooperative.

"Through the amendments, we up the stakes, increase enforcement, and look at more stringent penalties for spouses who are not abiding by the court's judgement when it comes to child access," she said.

Mr Ivan Cheong, family and divorce law partner at Withers KhattarWong agreed that there is a need to strengthen child access and maintenance order enforcement here.

"It is often frustrating for parties who have access to feel that their spouse is not complying with the access orders on the basis that the children do not wish to go for access or myriad other reasons such as the children being ill, etc.

"The current recourse for ensuring compliance is to apply for enforcement of the court order via committal; it is quite a draconian measure and not an easy process," he added.

Under the new fact, couples who are seeking divorce will have to include reasons for the marital breakdown, steps they have taken to reconcile, and also considerations they have made for their children and financial affairs in their submissions to the court.

Managing director at Integro Law Chambers Angelina Hing said that because DMA explicitly requires couples to consider their children's living arrangements and financial matters, it would hopefully encourage parties to agree on such matters at an early stage.

"Reaching an amicable resolution of divorce helps everyone, regardless of income status. Because the divorce is consensual, it is hoped that the acrimony is greatly lessened which in turn lowers the incidence of repeated enforcement of maintenance orders and child access orders."

She added: "DMA essentially fosters and facilitates the process of divorcing with a joint agreement and in a holistic manner, taking into account the consideration for the children explicitly. The ability to successfully co-parent their children post-divorce still very much depends on the mindset of both parents."

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