Singapore vs. New Zealand Divorce Laws: A Comparative Overview
Divorce or dissolution of marriage is a significant life event, and how it plays out legally can differ from country to country. When international couples or expatriates are involved, things can get even more complex. Singapore and New Zealand, two nations with close ties and a substantial expat community, have distinct divorce laws that shape how couples part ways. This article provides a brief overview into the differences between Singapore and New Zealand divorce laws, offering insights into what individuals and families should know when facing divorce in these countries.
The most interesting distinction between how Singapore and New Zealand deals with divorce is the legislation(s) relied upon. Singapore has one piece of legislation, the Women’s Charter 1961 that governs all aspects of a divorce, including childcare arrangements, maintenance, division of matrimonial assets. Whereas in New Zealand, we have separate and distinct legislation for each as set out below:
· Property (Relationships) Act 1976 for division of relationship property
· Care of Children Act 2004 for parenting arrangements
· Child Support Act 1991 for child support
· Family Proceedings Act 1980 for dissolution of marriage and spousal maintenance
In Singapore, whilst the Women’s Charter 1961 is the main source of substantive law concerning non-Muslim divorce proceedings, it remains possible for any claim as regards child custody, child maintenance and spousal maintenance to be applied for independently of any divorce proceedings.
Another distinction between divorce proceedings in Singapore and New Zealand is the treatment of Muslim divorces by the Syariah Court, which deals with Islamic divorce proceedings pursuant to the Administration of Muslim Law Act 1966.
In Singapore, parties can initiate the divorce process by making an application to the court alongside application for ancillary matters including children’s care arrangements, maintenance, and division of matrimonial assets. Essentially, the parties can deal with everything in one go.
The process is entirely different in New Zealand. Parties may only make an application for dissolution of marriage after they have separated for two years. Once a separation date is determined, usually the date the parties started living apart, parties would then start negotiating on division of relationship property, parenting arrangements, spousal maintenance and child support, and enter into the necessary agreements on each. It is common for there to be multiple agreements made between the parties given the separate legislation on each. If it is convenient to do so, the New Zealand court’s may consolidate those so that the parties’ various applications track alongside of each other within the court system. Once the parties’ hit the two-year mark of separation, they may then apply for dissolution of the marriage, whether or not they have resolved their relationship property dispute.
The only ground for divorce in Singapore is that the marriage has “irretrievably broken down”. To satisfy the Court that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, the plaintiff has to prove at least one of the following facts:
1. Their spouse committed adultery and the spouse seeking divorce finds it intolerable to live with the unfaithful spouse;
2. Their spouse behaved unreasonably such that the spouse seeking divorce cannot reasonably be expected to live with the other spouse exhibiting such behaviour;
3. Their spouse deserted them for 2 years or more; or
4. They have been living apart for 3 years (if the spouse consents to the divorce), or
5. 4 years (if the spouse does not consent to the divorce).
The Women’s Charter, which was recently amended, introduced a new additional 6th ground for divorce has been introduced – Amicable Divorce by Mutual Agreement, subject to approval of the Court. This would entail having parties to set out their mutual agreement to divorce in writing, with certain facts to allow the Court to determine whether parties’ consent to divorce should be effected. In setting out their agreement to divorce, the following facts must be stated:
a) The parties’ reasons for concluding that their marriage has irretrievably broken down;
b) Efforts made towards reconciliation; and
c) Considerations in respect of the arrangements to be made pertaining to financial affairs and any child(ren) of the marriage.
The Court may also decide whether to give parties a chance at reconciliation or advise them to attend a family support programme. If the Court finds that there is a reasonable possibility of reconciliation, the Court must not accept the agreement. This is provided for in section 95A(6)(c) of the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Act 2022. The amendments to the Women’s Charter are expected to come into effect sometime in early 2024.
New Zealand shares the same sole ground for a dissolution, that the parties’ marriage has “broken down irreconcilably”, however New Zealand has a “no fault” regime so no evidence as to why is ever required. Indeed, it is considered largely irrelevant as to why at all. Parties only need to satisfy the Court that they have been living apart for a period of two years immediately preceding the filing of the application for an order dissolving the marriage. No other proof shall be required to establish the ground. Here, the separation agreement that the parties have (hopefully) worked on and enforced for the two years immediately preceding the filing of the application for dissolution may be used as evidence of their living apart.
When it comes to which court parties are able to make an application to, it depends on where the parties are domiciled and/or habitually resident in. Parties may apply for a divorce in Singapore if they are habitually resident in Singapore for more than three years before the start of the divorce or domiciled in Singapore at the time the divorce begun. The New Zealand courts have jurisdiction to determine applications for dissolution of marriages when at least one party is domiciled in New Zealand at the time of filing the application.
In cases where the parties are living apart in Singapore and New Zealand respectively, it is advisable to engage lawyers in each country. Lawyers in each country will be able to team up and ensure that any agreements reached are enforceable in both jurisdictions, especially when there are children of the marriage or a relationship property pool consisting of assets in both countries.