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Getting a divorce in Singapore for expatriates

Ravinder Kapur

All expats are not eligible to get divorced in Singapore. According to Singaporean law, at least one spouse must have a permanent home in the city to allow the divorce to proceed through Singapore’s legal system.

Divorce proceedings can also be filed if either the husband or wife has been “habitually resident” in Singapore for at least three years. If either spouse is frequently absent from Singapore for long periods of time, the courts may hold that divorce proceedings cannot be initiated in the country.

There are times when an expat could file divorce proceedings in a country other than Singapore. If that country’s courts grant a divorce, it would normally be recognised in Singapore. Of course, each case is different and the Singaporean courts would go into the facts of the matter before acknowledging that a divorce by a foreign court is valid within the country.


Grounds for divorce in Singapore


A Judge of the Family Justice Courts will normally grant a divorce only if the marriage is deemed to have ended. When is a marriage considered to have irretrievably broken down in the eyes of the law?

The Court should be convinced about one or more of the following:

  • Either the husband or wife has committed adultery. Consequently, the spouse filing for divorce finds it intolerable to live together any longer.
  • The behaviour of one spouse is such that living together is impossible any longer.
  • Either the husband or wife has deserted the other for two years or more.
  • If the divorce is through mutual consent, then the husband and wife must have been separated for at least three years.
  • If either the husband or wife does not agree to the divorce, the separation should have lasted for four years.


Who gets custody of the children?

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If divorce proceedings have been initiated, either of the parents may not take the children out of Singapore without the consent of the other parent or an order of the Court.

The applicable law in the country can give custody of the children to either parent. Once the court passes an order on this issue, one of the parents will have “care and control” of the children. The other parent will get visiting rights.

If either the mother or the father leaves Singapore with the children in the absence of a court order, it can lead to serious legal complications. The Singaporean Courts may even deem the action as a “child abduction” and order the return of the children.


Is there an obligation to pay maintenance?

A husband may be required to pay maintenance to his ex-wife, but the rule does not apply in reverse. Additionally, the maintenance is usually payable if the ex-wife is not working. The maintenance for children is normally payable till they reach the age of 21.

There are several circumstances under which the maintenance payments can be stopped. These include the remarriage of the ex-wife or the death of either the husband or wife.


How will the assets be divided?

The Court will order the division of assets based on the particulars of the case. The division will usually apply to assets acquired during the marriage.

What if the wife was not working and stayed at home to look after the children? The Court will take this into account and the fact that she was not earning a salary will not prevent her from getting a share of the assets.

In most cases, the asset will be divided equally, but depending upon the specifics of the case, the Court may rule that one spouse gets a larger share than the other.


Cost of divorce

If the couple opts for an uncontested divorce, a fixed fee may be charged by the divorce lawyer. Of course, this depends on the practice followed by the lawyer who has been retained. In the normal course, a fixed fee provides an economical option.

How is a lawyer able to charge a lower amount in an uncontested divorce? This is possible because it is relatively easy to estimate the time and effort that would have to be put into the divorce proceedings.

However, in some cases, an individual opting for an uncontested divorce needs to switch over to a contested divorce when the proceedings are in progress. This can happen when a disagreement arises on the division of assets or on the issue of the custody of children.

A contested divorce can be more expensive as it may drag on for many months and involve multiple hearings.

While the fees for a divorce would vary based on the experience and seniority of the lawyer who is retained, an uncontested divorce may cost as little as S$2,500 to S$3,000.

The costs of a contested divorce, on the other hand, are more difficult to estimate as they would depend to a great extent on the time that the lawyer has to put into the case.


A divorce involving an expatriate can be complicated

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An uncontested divorce could take as little as five to six months to complete. But in some cases, the matter may take longer than that.

This is especially true if the husband or the wife has assets in a country other than Singapore and the divorce is being contested. In these circumstances, the laws of the two countries would apply and the parties would need to be prepared for legal proceedings that could drag on for many months.

(By Ravinder Kapur)

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