Option for couples to mutually agree to divorce among proposed amendments to Women’s Charter
SINGAPORE: The option to divorce by mutual agreement was introduced as a proposed amendment to the Women’s Charter on Monday (Nov 1), potentially allowing couples to “take joint responsibility” for the breakdown of their marriage.
Couples can cite this if they mutually agree to the divorce, said the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in a news release.
Currently, the sole reason for divorce to be granted is the “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage. This must be proven by one or more of five facts - adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, separation of three years with consent, or separation of four years without consent.
This is among several proposed changes related to marriage and divorce proceedings introduced in a Bill in Parliament on Monday.
There has been “strong feedback” from divorcees that having to cite one of the fault-based facts - adultery, unreasonable behaviour and desertion - can “cause parties to point fingers at each other and dredge up the past to prove the facts”, said MSF in the release.
Citing the separation facts also means the couple have to put their lives on hold for three to four years, which can be detrimental to children and the couple, the ministry added.
The “starting point” for introducing the option to divorce by mutual agreement is to reduce acrimony, said Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling.
“The reason why we say that this helps us reduce acrimony in the process is because the couple would have thought through about whether or not the marriage is able to continue,” she added, speaking to journalists over Zoom last week.
“And where they see that there is irreconcilable breakdown of the marriage, they may feel that both parties need to take joint responsibility for the marriage breakdown.
“The introduction of this sixth fact for divorce, divorce by mutual agreement, where there is irretrievable breakdown of marriage will offer them this route.”
It is likely that couples who go through uncontested divorces, or the simplified track, which accounts for about 60 per cent of couples who file for divorce, will likely consider this new option, said Ms Sun.
“When they file under this sixth fact, we are proposing that they file as applicant and respondent, as compared to the current proceedings where the two parties even file as plaintiffs or as defendants, which makes this process very adversarial,” she added.
These amendments stem from year-long consultations conducted by MSF, she said.
“At the same time, in our focus group discussions with stakeholders and divorcees, we understand that for some of the divorcees, they have shared that the current divorce process sometimes causes them to bring up unhappy instances in their marriage.”
Some couples may still have co-parenting responsibilities, and the acrimony from the divorce process “does not help them” in reconciling their differences and thinking about next steps, said Ms Sun.
Parties who file for divorce citing mutual agreement will have to submit to the court reasons for the breakdown of the marriage, efforts made to reconcile, and considerations for their children and financial affairs, said MSF in the release.
The court may then order further mediation, counselling, or programmes.
The court must also reject the parties’ agreement if reconciliation is “a reasonable possibility”.
“The current safeguards which will be retained are: Three-year minimum marriage period before divorce can be filed; three-month period before divorce is finalised; and retention of the existing five facts for parties that prefer to rely on them,” said MSF.
Another proposed amendment will mandate all divorcing parents with minor children to attend the Mandatory Parenting Programme before they can file for divorce, said MSF.
Currently, only parents who file for divorce under the standard track, or a contested divorce, have to attend the programme.
PROPOSED AMENDMENTS TO MARRIAGE PROCESSES
Other proposed amendments to the Women’s Charter include changes to the marriage process.
If accepted, the option to conduct marriage solemnisations via video-link will become a permanent option for couples where at least one partner is a Singapore citizen or permanent resident.
The couple is still required to physically be in Singapore, said Ms Sun.
Solemnisation via video-link was introduced in May 2020, as part of COVID-19 laws.
The verification of documents or pre-solemnisation steps can also take place online, said Ms Sun.
“Also, where there are concerns that it may be a marriage of convenience, the registrar can also require the couple to be physically present for the registrar to verify the documents,” she said.
“These are the safeguards that are still in existence even as we move to have some of the documents verified online to provide convenience to couples."
The proposed amendments also provide discretion to the Registrar to allow a party to apply to cancel a notice of marriage “if there are good grounds”.
Currently, a notice of marriage will lapse after three months, with no provision for cancellation of the notice.
But there may be cases where the notice may need to be cancelled, said MSF. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic when couples could not proceed with the marriage.
Under other proposed changes, religious ceremonies will also be allowed before, during and after solemnisation, to allow couples “more flexibility” in planning their ceremonies.