Maintenance not an 'unalloyed right', says judge

A judge debunked the idea that maintenance was an "unalloyed right" of a woman and suggested a wider Marriage Charter might someday replace the current Women's Charter.

Justice Choo Han Teck said a woman who is truly independent and equal in a marriage would not need patronising gestures of maintenance which belie "deep chauvinistic thinking".

His comments came in decision grounds released yesterday explaining why he rejected a woman's $120,000 maintenance claim from her former spouse after their 10-year marriage ended in 2012.

He noted the idea for women to seek maintenance evolved out of the 1961 Women's Charter that was passed to protect women in a time when many were housewives supported by their husbands.

But this was "yoked to an old attitude that should be changed", he said. "If it were to continue even where the protection is no longer needed, it might lead to the suppression of women in the name of chivalry."

He added that to award the woman even a token sum "would be wrong if it was merely symbolic. That symbol for women has to be torn asunder, in fact and in spirit".

He said the time may come for a "wider, more encompassing Bill", suitably named the Marriage Charter, but stressed it was for Parliament to decide "when that moment might be".

The couple, he a 47-year-old senior prison officer and she a 48-year-old regional sales manager of a multinational company, married in 2002 and lived apart after six years.

She has a 17-year-old son from a previous marriage whom he adopted and for whose maintenance he pays $1,000 a month, which the court upheld. The parties cannot be named under the law.

At issue was the $120,000 lump sum maintenance she sought, "presumably" computed at $1,000 a month for their decade-long marriage, noted the judge.

The slightly older woman also earned slightly more than he did. She grossed $215,900 in annual income, according to her 2010 income tax returns. She also had more than twice the assets he had.

Justice Choo said there should be no maintenance order if the court, as in the present case, finds she had not depended on her former hubby in the past and would not rely on any future maintenance monies.

Nor should there be an order for "no maintenance but with liberty to apply", which would apply in cases such as where the former husband is ill but subsequently recovers to be able to pay maintenance.

"If women were to be treated as equal to men in marriage and in divorce, this distinction is important."

Lawyers said the judge's remarks were a recognition of changing financial realities in spousal relationships.

Lawyer Anuradha Sharma, who represented the husband, said: "The Women's Charter is still needed now, but the judge is looking ahead to laws that will keep apace with the updated status of the respective spouses."

This article by The Straits Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.

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