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Divorce by mutual consent may boost cooperation on finances, parenting

Divorce by mutual consent may boost cooperation on finances, parenting

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 08 Nov 2021
Author: Malavika Menon

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

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 incidents of repeated enforcement of maintenance orders and child access orders.

The Government proposed new changes to the Women's Charter in Parliament last Monday, one of which was introducing a sixth fact for divorce termed "divorce by mutual agreement of the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage" (DMA), which allows 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 judgment when it comes to child access," she said.

Lawyer Ivan Cheong from 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.

"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 said.

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."


NOT ABOUT ASSIGNING BLAME

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... 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.

MS DOROTHY TAN, senior associate director at PKWA Law Practice.
 
LESS ACRIMONY

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.

MANAGING DIRECTOR AT INTEGRO LAW CHAMBERS ANGELINA HING

Divorce law changes must be accompanied by community support to resolve disputes: Faith leaders

While allowing couples to divorce amicably would help them avoid conflict, more can be done to strengthen marriages and settle marital disputes at the outset, said religious leaders here.

Leaders from the Christian, Taoist, Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu communities said the proposed changes to the Women's Charter to introduce divorce by mutual agreement could help parties move on in life with fewer adverse consequences and reduce the detrimental effect divorce has on children.

Reverend Dominic Yeo, general superintendent at the Assemblies of God Singapore, said the church would make efforts to provide counselling and guidance to couples so they could work through their differences and be better parents.

"Marital breakdown brings devastating consequences for the couple and their children. While the Women's Charter amendments to divorce aim to lessen the acrimony between (parties), we, the church, must make every effort to help struggling couples work through their differences and towards restoration," he said.

Reverend Yeo also noted that in cases of divorce by mutual agreement, the court can also reject the couple's agreement if there is possibility of reconciliation.

"It is reassuring that the court will not grant the divorce if it believes that there is a reasonable chance for the couple to reconcile," he said.

First vice-chairman of the Taoist Federation (Singapore) Ling Kin Huat said marriage preparation courses and seeking help to resolve disputes were important to strengthen marriages.

"We are unable to predict how the proposed change will affect the possibility of divorce, but if we are looking from the perspective of the social cost incurred from the divorce disputes and the emotional cost on the parties involved, it would likely be beneficial," he said.

The federation is organising its first "Marital First Responder" training for the Taoist community next month, helping participants identify and resolve marital disputes.

Sikh Advisory Board chairman Malminderjit Singh noted that citing fault on the part of one spouse such as adultery and unreasonable behaviour, instead of taking joint responsibility for the divorce, could cause the parties to be stigmatised by society and affect the children as well.

He said: "It is important to note and distinguish that these amendments do not make it easier for couples in Singapore to seek divorce and therefore weaken the institution of marriage. That would be a misconception. Rather, they are designed to reduce the acrimony and pain often found in the divorce process.

"I am sure community organisations will step forward to assist in these counselling and mediation processes, drawing on faith-based teachings to achieve the best mutual outcomes."

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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