When people hear the term “maintenance” being used in the family law context, their first instinct would be to associate it with children or women. This is unsurprising given that women were historically perceived to be financially dependent on their spouses, and hence greater protection needed to be accorded as they were the more vulnerable party after a divorce.
Times have definitely changed – husbands are no longer the sole breadwinners in families and more women are venturing out of their homes and into the workforce. The financial independence of women in today’s society have left many people wondering, is it still necessary for husbands to grant maintenance to their wives, especially in cases where they earn as much or even more?
Courts in Singapore have responded to this socio-economic change by exercising their discretion in granting maintenance more carefully, and have generally been reluctant to allow wives to claim maintenance if they are proven to be financially independent. Gone are the days where wives had a blanket right to maintenance – ultimately, a fact-centric exercise has to be carried out and special circumstances such as the wife’s higher salary will be considered.
Why maintenance for wives was necessary in the past
You might wonder, how did the idea of maintenance for wives come about and why was this right so protected in the past? In the 2014 High Court case of ADB v ADC  SGHC 76, Justice Choo Han Teck mentioned that maintenance for wives was an “unalloyed right” in the past as most women were housewives and were thus financially dependent on the maintenance of their husbands.
However, this is evidently not the case now. Justice Choo Han Teck then went on to note that this perception that women needed to be supported financially by their husbands, even in this day and age, “might lead to the suppression of women in the name of chivalry.” As a result of this, courts would have to exercise their discretion carefully to ensure that wives do not continue to benefit at the expense of their husbands, especially in situations where their need for financial support is completely redundant and uncalled for.
No maintenance for wives
ADB v ADC was just one of the many recent cases where the claim for maintenance for the wife was dismissed due to her stronger financial position as compared to her husband. A quick glance at more recent cases this year will reveal this same trend of courts deciding that wives should not be able to claim for maintenance at all.
The High Court held recently that there was no need for maintenance as the wife was awarded about 50% of the matrimonial assets and earning a steady income every month in the case of UJP v UJQ  SGHCF 9. Similarly, in the case of UEB v UEC  SGHCF 5, it was held that since the wife’s income was greater than the monthly expenses, there was no need to provide maintenance for her.
Factors other than a wife’s income may also be considered, as highlighted by the 2017 case of UBM v UBN  4 SLR 921. Since the wife had “sufficient financial resources” based on the assets that were divided, and her children were all old enough to support their parents, there should be no maintenance for the wife. Furthermore, the husband will have to face a reduction in assets used to generate income after the division order. Hence, he should not have to bear the financial burden of having to support the wife who has been proven to be fully capable of supporting herself.
Nominal maintenance for wives
Ever wondered why anyone would claim for $1 for her maintenance? You may have heard of the term “nominal maintenance” before, but few know exactly what this entails. Wives would usually have to request for some sort of maintenance during the divorce proceedings or they lose this right to do so, and this is where nominal maintenance comes in handy. Nominal maintenance is a small sum, such as a dollar, which women ask for if they want to preserve their rights to claim maintenance in the future. They usually vary the sum of this nominal maintenance when there is a need to do so because of a change in circumstances, such as when they fall ill or lose their jobs.
Naturally, the safe route to take would be to ask for nominal maintenance even if your current salary is sufficient because who knows what uncertainties may lie ahead? However, in the 2016 Court of Appeal case of ATE v ATD and another appeal  SGCA 2, it was held that there is no such automatic right to maintenance and it was asserted that it has “never been the duty of the courts to compensate parties for the vicissitudes of life.” With a clever choice of words, Justice of Appeal Andrew Phang noted that allowing an automatic order of nominal maintenance would be akin to “making the husband a general insurer of sorts.” Therefore, since the wife in that case had the capacity to earn enough money to take care of herself, protection in the event of uncertainties which might arise in the future would not be a sufficient reason for the court to order a claim for nominal maintenance.
But isn’t the Women’s Charter supposed to protect women, as the name suggests?
The right to maintenance for wives is available under Section 69 of the Women’s Charter and there is a common impression that the Women’s Charter seeks to protect the more vulnerable sex in the event of a divorce – women. If this is so, why should wives be denied of the right to maintenance as a form of financial help and support?
Over the years, there have been several clarifications and amendments made to the Women’s Charter to correctly “reflect the changing family trends in Singapore”, as mentioned on the Ministry of Social and Family Development website. As a result of these changes, there cannot be a blanket application of the Women Charter’s provisions, including the right to maintenance for wives.
Furthermore, according to an article published by The Straits Times in 2014, lawyers have mentioned that the Women’s Charter should be renamed the “Marriage Charter” or the “Family Charter”. Perhaps it is worth considering whether there should be amendment to the name of this Act, to reflect the equal and empowered role and status that women have in our society today.
Maintenance for husbands
While the idea of husbands claiming for maintenance under the Women’s Charter might seem pretty unusual, it was actually an amendment to the Women’s Charter that was made in recent years in response to greater calls for gender equality. Under the same Section 69 provision of the Women’s Charter, the Court may order maintenance for a husband if he is or becomes incapacitated during the marriage. The definition of this can be found in Section 2 of the same Act:
“incapacitated husband” means a husband who —
(a) during the marriage, is or becomes —
(i) incapacitated, by any physical or mental disability or any illness, from earning a livelihood; and
(ii) unable to maintain himself; and
(b) continues to be unable to maintain himself
Maintenance for wives is no longer always necessary in this day and age
As money matters are often a crucial area of contestation in most divorces, it is important that you are aware of you and your spouse’s right to maintenance when going through a divorce. As a closing summary, maintenance for wives may not be ordered in all cases, bearing in mind recent court cases this year where no maintenance was granted for wives because of their strong financial positions.
If you require greater clarification on this area of law of maintenance in the unfortunate event of a divorce, do engage a family lawyer for advice. You may also wish to seek help on presenting a claim for maintenance if you happen to fall within the ambit of the definition of an “incapacitated husband” in Section 2 of the Women’s Charter. Ultimately, with changing family trends in society today, it is best to be kept up to date and to be fully aware of what you and your spouse’s rights are when entering a divorce.
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.