Coronavirus: Divorced couples face child access and maintenance issues during circuit breaker period

Divorced ex-spouses The Straits Times spoke to said they are facing difficulties during this period. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - One divorced father said he was anxious that he would not be able to see his children again, even after the circuit breaker period ends. His ex-wife has denied him child access during this time.

Another divorced father who has lost his job amid the coronavirus outbreak, worries that he will not be able to pay the monthly maintenance amount and be taken to court by his ex-wife.

Divorced ex-spouses The Straits Times spoke to said they are facing difficulties during this period.

While Ministry of Health (MOH) guidelines state that access arrangements are allowed to continue, such as if children take turns to live with either parent, the ministry also said to "keep changes to a minimum, where possible, to lower the risk of transmission across different households".

In particular, for cases where ex-spouses have an acrimonious relationship, sorting out child access and maintenance payouts during this period is not clear-cut.

Family lawyer Rajan Chettiar of Rajan Chettiar LLP said that in "normal times", some people would use "a bit of sniffles or sickness" to deprive their ex-spouses access to the children. "For those who want to default on access orders, this is a perfect time," he said.

"Access is a practical problem we are facing in Singapore even without the Covid-19 situation. Many ex-spouses, in particular, fathers who are usually in this situation since care and control is usually granted to the mother, are going to end up this month without access and be very unhappy."

Even before the circuit breaker period began, Jimmy (not his real name) was given time with his two kids only on Sundays by his ex-wife, even though the court had granted him access Saturday overnight till Sunday. But now, she has cut off access completely, citing concerns about her family's safety if the children were to shuttle between households.

"I only have a few precious hours of time with them every week. Now I'm worried that I won't see my kids ever even after this," said Jimmy, who declined to give his details.

In response to queries from ST, the Family Justice Courts (FJC) said parents should communicate with each other or through lawyers and work together to find "practical and suitable solutions to access issues", bearing in mind the best interests of the children and the need to comply with government measures.

The court reminded parents to cooperate with each other and "act sensibly and safely in all arrangements made for their children".

If there is no agreement despite best efforts, parents can write in jointly to the courts with their views or apply for a variation or suspension of access orders. "The Courts should be the last resort in parenting matters," stressed the FJC.

PKWA Law Practice family lawyer Dorothy Tan said that despite MOH's guidelines, there were several scenarios where these parents would face problems.

Ex-couples that have not already established access orders with the courts - including couples in the midst of divorce proceedings - would have to come to an interim agreement for this period.

Those who had supervised access at divorce support specialist agencies would also have access suspended as these centres are closed during the circuit breaker period.

"These cases are usually the most difficult, with concerns of potential abuse, or lack of trust between parent and child. There is no alternative and unfortunately their process to re-forge the bonds will now have to take longer," said Ms Tan.

Other couples facing problems include those whose access arrangements have been for the ex-spouse to meet the child outside, such as at a cafe, said Mr Ivan Cheong, partner at law firm Eversheds Harry Elias.

These parents could try more video call contact, with the potential for more physical access with the child after the circuit breaker ends, he said.

He added that it would be difficult to file applications for access during this period as it was highly unlikely that the courts would qualify them as urgent and essential.

Mr Rajan said he had a client who had to take a pay cut a month ago, and hence unilaterally cut down his maintenance payment for his two children. "So far, he has not been taken to task yet (by his ex-spouse), but I am sure there are many more cases of people defaulting," he said.

If taken to court, Mr Rajan believes the courts will consider the situation and circumstances of the parent who has cut the maintenance payment. "While many dads may have to put up with the lack of access, many mums have to live with delayed or cut maintenance payments," he added.

The FJC advised that parents facing difficulties in paying for maintenance during this period should contact each other as soon as possible to explain the situation, and attempt an amicable resolution and agree privately on changes in maintenance payments, if necessary.

"If there is an agreement, they should record their settlement in a written form to avoid misunderstanding later. If there is still no agreement, parents can seek legal recourse through the appropriate application. Parents are urged to be empathetic to each other in view of the current health crisis," it added.

Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said in a Facebook post last Thursday (April 16) that the best way to deal with these difficult times will be for parents to openly communicate with one another.

"If disagreements cannot be resolved, parties should first attempt a non-adversarial approach such as counselling or mediation. Turning to the court for the enforcement of access orders should be the last resort," he said.

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