New guidelines on child maintenance expected next year

Family lawyers welcomed the move, with some saying child maintenance is one of the most rancorous issues argued about in court as there are inconsistencies over how much is needed to raise a child.
Family lawyers welcomed the move, with some saying child maintenance is one of the most rancorous issues argued about in court as there are inconsistencies over how much is needed to raise a child.PHOTO: ST FILE

Expected next year, they're based on actuarial data and may hasten closure of divorce cases

Divorcing parents will have a better idea of how much they need to pay for child maintenance, when guidelines for this are expected to be released by early next year.

The guidelines will be based on actuarial data on family expenses, giving family lawyers and judges a more objective view of how much is needed to raise a child.

Currently, there are no such rules; information on children's living expenses is declared - and often inflated - by divorcing parties.

With the move, lawyers expect divorce cases to be settled more quickly as the issue of child maintenance is one of the most acrimonious.

The guidelines will be set by a panel co-chaired by Mr Gerard Ee, president of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants, and Judicial Commissioner Valerie Thean.

Mr Ee said these guidelines will include a table suggesting different maintenance amounts depending on two factors: the child's age and parents' income. "These factors have always been considered in divorce cases but there was no actuarial template to refer to," he added.

Having such guidelines will "help improve consistency and cost-effectiveness" in divorce cases involving children, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon last week at the opening of the legal year, when he announced the setting up of the panel.

Countries with child maintenance guidelines include Germany, Canada and Australia. The table Mr Ee mentioned is similar to Germany's Dusseldorf Table, which has been updated nearly every year for the past decade. Mr Ee said the one in Singapore will be refreshed regularly too, to reflect changes in living costs.

The move comes amid a rising number of break-ups, though the divorce rate has been stable. The latest available data shows there were 7,120 divorces in 2015, a rise of 11 per cent from the number in 2005.

Family lawyers welcomed the move, with some saying child maintenance is one of the most rancorous issues argued about in court as there are inconsistencies over how much is needed to raise a child.

Said Mr Rajan Chettiar: "Often, the father thinks the mother is deliberately inflating the child's expenses to get more maintenance, and worries that the mother will spend the extra money on herself."

Ms Gloria James agreed that many divorcing parties inflate expenses, citing a case in which the court's view of the children's monthly expenses was about $1,300 less than what the mother had argued for. The mother had included items like "staycations", "photography" and "birthday parties".

Ms Sharanjit Kaur said judges face an "uphill task" in assessing the average cost of living for children owing to changing expectations and needs."The cost of living for children has changed significantly, with parents spending more on things like enrichment classes."

Currently, parents must give evidence such as receipts for expenses incurred by the child.

Lawyers Ivan Cheong and Michelle Woodworth said the guidelines could lead to divorce cases being closed more quickly. This will also reduce parents' legal costs.

Mr Ee said the panel will consult other lawyers on the guidelines, and possibly the public later this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2017, with the headline 'New guidelines on child maintenance'. Print Edition | Subscribe