There’s a misconception that divorce lawyers are unscrupulous folks, the kind who have no qualms about encouraging married couples to get a divorce or instigating a breakdown in their marriage.
That’s obviously not true, chuckles Ivan Cheong, a Family Law specialist with Withers KhattarWong.
“While you want — of course — everything to be a bed of roses, the reality is that there are relationships that do break down.”
Sometimes, families might need help with issues relating to, say family violence or a dispute over how best to raise their children, he adds.
“At the end of the day, it is a necessary service which helps individuals move forward and take steps towards leading happy lives.”
With over 13 years of experience in dealing with family law cases, some might say that the 38-year-old lawyer is well acquainted with the ugly side of divorce — the shouting matches, the tantrums, and of course, the tears.
Indeed, practising family law is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, says Cheong.
“I thought it wouldn’t be my cup of tea but when I was tasked to handle and run family law cases as a young lawyer starting out, I found that I had the aptitude for this area of law, and as clichéd as it may sound, I found the work meaningful.”
Cheong is now a partner in the firm’s divorce and family law team which handles cases relating to divorce amongst many others.
Q: What is the most common reason for divorce in Singapore?
When a couple wants a divorce in Singapore, they must prove that the marriage cannot be saved due to one of these four reasons: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, or separation.
The most commonly-cited reason is “unreasonable behaviour”, says Cheong, adding that there are two reasons why this is so.
First, it’s easy to establish how one’s spouse is behaving in an unreasonable way because the term is so broad.
Some of the more quirky reasons that Cheong has come across include leaving the toilet seat up, and embarrassing the spouse with off-key singing in front of their friends.
“By itself, I would say that it might be quite difficult to count these as unreasonable behaviour, because arguably I'm sure quite a few of us might be guilty of these in one form or another.
However, if there are allegations to say for instance, that my husband or wife always goes out late, doesn't care about my opinions, and doesn't want to go pak tor with me, then taken in its totality, it would be sufficient.”
Second, unlike separation where a couple has to prove that they are separated for either three or four years, there isn’t a time requirement for divorce due to “unreasonable behaviour”.
Q: Speaking about unreasonable behaviour, I found out after marriage that my spouse is terrible in bed. Can we get a divorce?
“Certainly this dissatisfaction with physical intimacy in bed and similar factors could be one of the reasons which parties can cite when applying for divorce,” Cheong says, adding that he has had clients who wanted to divorce because they were dissatisfied with their sex life.
But if that is the only contentious issue between you and your spouse, then Cheong recommends a less extreme measure:
“Perhaps you might want to discuss your concerns with your spouse and, if necessary, attend counselling or therapy together.”
Q: Can I ghost my spouse and sign a one-sided divorce paper?
Short answer: No.
“Essentially, if you have to file for divorce, the divorce papers will need to be prepared. Once they are filed, they need to be personally served on the spouse,” says Cheong.
If your spouse cannot be located, you have to apply for substituted service to ensure that they get the papers (through email or to their last known residential address, for example).
In the event that your spouse really cannot be reached, you can apply for a dispensation of service (which, if granted, allows you to proceed without serving divorce papers).
Even if your spouse doesn't turn up in court, the court will still look at what you’re asking for, and determine whether it's reasonable, says Cheong.
“So at the end of the day, we have a legal system. It is fair, and it is just. You cannot just present a one-sided paper and expect it to be approved.”
Q: My spouse is framing me so she/he can gain custody of the children. What can I do?
In situations like this, Cheong stresses two things: Do not be impulsive or overreact, and think about what is best for your children.
“If necessary, try and gather some kind of evidence. Certainly, do not drag your children into it. Try to seek the advice of a family lawyer because every situation is different and the family lawyer will then be able to advise you on how best to approach your particular situation.”
Q: What is the biggest spousal maintenance fee someone has received from a divorce in Singapore?
“I have known of cases whereby the monthly maintenance was in the region of around S$50,000 or more,” Cheong quips.
In some cases, it might even reach astronomical figures like the cool S$450,000 that socialite Jamie Chua famously demanded from her Indonesian businessman husband during their divorce.
“Unfortunately, we will never know the actual amount received because I think the settlement offer, which was actually negotiated, remains private and confidential.”
Q: What happens if I go bankrupt and cannot continue paying spousal maintenance?
You cannot stop paying maintenance, even if you are bankrupt, says Cheong.
If there’s a change in your financial situation and circumstances, you should apply to court to vary the maintenance order, which is legally binding by the way.
Q: What happens if my ex-spouse moves overseas and stops paying spousal maintenance?
“You should get advice from family lawyers in the country where your ex-spouse is currently residing to see whether the maintenance order which is made in Singapore can be registered and enforced there,” Cheong advises.
He gives the example of Hong Kong, which has a framework with Singapore allowing court orders from either country to be enforced in the other. So if your ex-spouse moved to Hong Kong and stopped paying maintenance, you can register your maintenance order there and make sure they continue paying.
Q: Is it really true that men always get the short end of the stick when it comes to divorce cases, i.e. women get more money and also the kids.
“That is a very common misconception that there is nothing in it for the man simply because it is the women's charter,” says Cheong.
The truth is that the court considers various factors, including what is in the child’s best interest when deciding which parent gets custody. It just so happens that, in general, the primary caregiver is usually the mother.
Over time though, as we see changes in the family dynamics — for example, stay-at-home fathers and dual-working parents — this misconception that women tend to get custody and more matrimonial assets would probably become less prevalent.
Q: I’m not sure if I should get a divorce. How can a family lawyer help?
Engaging the services of a family lawyer doesn’t always necessarily lead to divorce.
If you are undecided, a family lawyer can help you understand your rights and the options that are available to you should you proceed to file for divorce, says Cheong.
A family lawyer can also help to clear any misconceptions you might have.
“For example, one might be uncertain about getting a divorce for fear that the spouse will get 50 per cent of the assets, or full custody of the children.”
These incorrect perceptions, says Cheong, might influence a person’s reasons for either staying in a marriage or getting out of it.
Q: Aside from divorce, what else does a family lawyer do?
There’s a lot more to family law, says Cheong, and some cases can actually be happy ones too (“It’s not all contentious, parties don’t always fight!”).
For starters, there’s adoption.
“So we also help in terms of applying for couples or single parents who are applying to adopt other children.”
Family lawyers also deal with prenuptial agreements, which are becoming increasingly common.
“A prenuptial agreement is a contract which parties enter into before the marriage, in which they've had discussions about the state of their finances, what they intend to do should the unfortunate event of a divorce happen. So it is more like an insurance contract in that sense.”
Q: What’s the most difficult family law case you've ever encountered?
For Cheong, the more difficult cases that he encounters typically involve children, especially those who are abused or are caught in the middle of an acrimonious marriage.
One that he remembers clearly involved a homemaker who wanted to leave her violent and aggressive husband and move out. He never abused her or the children physically but took out his anger frequently on his surroundings. It was traumatising for the homemaker and her children.
She chose to move her belongings out of their matrimonial home on a day that he had to work, and enlisted the help of Cheong, who was a young lawyer back then, as she had no family members or close friend who was available to help her at that particular time.
“She more or less had everything ready and was moving out when suddenly her husband returned home from work! Oh, she was understandably petrified. He tried to prevent her from leaving but thankfully nothing went south. Otherwise I might not be here today.”
The case left a deep impression on Cheong, who reiterates that he finds his work in family law meaningful.
“These are the instances where you really see how your role impacts the lives of individuals. Your clients do not just rely on you for your legal expertise and sound advice. Sometimes they also need a listening ear, and someone who's able to be there for them to give some kind of support.”
Q: Does handling divorce cases/family law cases take a toll on you? What do you do to relax?
Any lawyer who says that they are not affected at all by any of their cases is probably lying, Cheong quips. However, he stresses that he takes care not to be too emotionally aligned.
“While I empathise with clients and do my very best to assist them, they need rationality and objectivity from us and this allows us to do our best work.”
He also takes time to set aside time away from work and engage in his hobbies like cooking, hanging out with friends, and exercising.
Q: Do your family members and friends often bug you for free legal advice?
“I would say, ‘bug’ is a very strong word,” Cheong laughs, “but certainly yes. I mean, they would ask you because they know that you are a lawyer and they will understandably assume that you know everything with regard to the law.”
The cheeky answer that Cheong gives is that a lawyer’s advice is worth nothing unless it’s paid for.
But jokes aside, he is quick to stress that he tries his best to help family members and friends who approach him. Those that require answers that are beyond his scope of expertise will receive a referral to someone who is more adept with that particular area of law.
Q: With your experience as a family lawyer, what’s the best relationship advice you can give?
Cheong has two pieces of advice: Be honest with your partner and always communicate.
“The last thing you want to do is to try and sweep everything under the carpet and hope that these issues will go away because they usually won’t...and if things aren’t moving along, try to get some professional support. There's no harm in that and you have everything to gain.”
If you have any other burning questions for Cheong, you can find him here.
Thanks to this sponsored article by Withers KhattarWong, this writer learned a bit more about family law in Singapore. Top image credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images.