Divorcee loses maintenance of nominal $1 a month on appeal

Ruling bars career woman from claiming future maintenance

A career woman who got a nominal $1 a month in maintenance from her ex-spouse had it cancelled on appeal, effectively barring her from claiming future maintenance.

The three-judge Court of Appeal found the nominal award was not justified as the woman was " professionally successful" and the couple had even considered having the husband become a stay-at-home dad should she be promoted at work.

Lawyers said the decision by the apex court was significant as it made clear the $1 per month maintenance would no longer be routinely given. The purpose of the award was to preserve the woman's right to go back to court to apply for maintenance in future "should something untoward happen to her".

But the appeal court ruled it was not enough to argue - without more evidence - that she was entitled to an order of nominal maintenance simply because her situation might change in the future.

"The courts cannot - and ought not to - order nominal maintenance automatically or as a matter of course," wrote Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang in judgment grounds released yesterday.

The couple married in 2008 and their only child was born in 2011. Two years later, she was granted a divorce and gained care and control of the child. Her husband was given access. Both were well-educated and in well-paid civil service jobs, with the wife earning more than the husband, noted the court.

In dividing up the matrimonial assets, a High Court judge last year had awarded each half the net sale proceeds of their matrimonial home and had given the woman an additional sum of $36,000.

In addition, the judge awarded the wife nominal maintenance.

The husband, through lawyer Helen Chia, appealed against the $1 a month order while the wife, represented by lawyer Koh Tien Hua, sought an increase in the $36,000 sum, among other things.

The Appeal Court ruled that accepting a blanket maintenance order would make the husband a "general insurer of sorts".

"It has never been - and ought not to be - the case that a party (let alone) a former spouse has a duty to be a general insurer vis-a-vis another party," said the court.

The court held that the precise facts of each case were important, pointing out that the law in this area would evolve over time. It noted the husband was a calculating man who made sure his wife paid her share of household expenses and even sought reimbursement when they went shopping together. They kept their finances separate and she never depended financially on him during the marriage.

It said the couple were married for only a short time and there was no evidence her earning capacity had been adversely affected in that time. He is paying $1,300 a month for their daughter's maintenance.

The court, which included Justices Judith Prakash and Steven Chong, found she was "more than capable" of taking care of herself and had in fact been doing so.

The court upped the $36,000 sum for the wife to $63,000, after reviewing her indirect contributions during the marriage.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2016, with the headline Divorcee loses maintenance of nominal $1 a month on appeal. Subscribe