SINGAPORE - A university lecturer’s appeal to increase his share of the matrimonial assets upon divorce so that his wife bears part of the expenses of their two sons’ future postgraduate degrees was dismissed by a High Court judge.
In his judgment released on Feb 5, Justice Choo Han Teck said the sons’ proposed postgraduate degrees from universities in the United States and Britain are “not reasonable expenses that their parents are obliged to pay”.
Justice Choo added that the sons are mature enough to find ways to fund their postgraduate education without depending on their parents, and that their parents have a duty to support them up to only their first tertiary degree.
The case involved a 63-year-old lecturer, who had a monthly income of more than $20,000, and his spouse, a 52-year-old housewife. They have two adult sons.
Originally from Sri Lanka, the couple are Singapore permanent residents and the wife filed for a divorce after 23 years of marriage.
The man appealed against a district judge’s decision that their marital assets should be split equally, among other things.?
His lawyers, Mr Hassan Esa Almenoar and Ms Diana Foo of R. Ramason & Almenoar, argued that he should get 65 per cent of the assets, with the wife receiving the remaining 35 per cent.
The wife was represented by Ms Phoebe Tan of Tan Rajah & Cheah.
The man claimed that an equal division of assets, or 50-50, meant that the burden of providing for his sons’ education fell on him alone, and that this was unfair to him.
His lawyers argued that the district judge, who was not named, erred in dividing the assets equally, as the judge failed to take into account the sons’ past, present and future educational expenses.
Their older son has two more years before he completes his undergraduate degree at a top university in the US. He wants to pursue law as a postgraduate degree after obtaining his first degree.
Meanwhile, the younger son has an undergraduate degree from a local university, and wishes to pursue a master’s degree in Britain.
Justice Choo said that while both parents have a parental duty to support their children’s education, including their tertiary education, “reason draws a line at the first tertiary degree”.
“Parents should not be obliged to provide their children with luxuries – and some educational expenses are clearly luxurious.
“The husband may lavish on the children if he wishes, but not at the expense of the wife. Her obligations end at the basic level the law thinks reasonable.”
He said the sons can work and save up to pursue their postgraduate degrees, get a scholarship or take an education loan, among various options to fund their further education.?
He said: “They are mature enough to take responsibility for advancing their own lives and must be expected to do so.?“
“They have the ability to provide for themselves, having been equipped with their degrees (and life experiences).”
The man’s lawyers also said that he should get a larger share of the assets to pay for his older son’s two remaining years of undergraduate education – a point that Justice Choo rejected.
Justice Choo agreed with the wife’s lawyer that as a housewife, she had no income for more than 20 years, and that even if she returned to the workforce, her earning power would be “very limited”.
He also noted that the district judge did not order the man to give his wife maintenance after the divorce, taking into account that he has been paying his sons’ hefty education bills.
And, apart from the backdated maintenance to cover arrears amounting to $85,000, there was no further maintenance awarded to the wife after the divorce.
The man’s lawyers also argued that he should get a larger share of the assets, as he was the sole breadwinner and he had contributed entirely to the acquisition of the marital assets.?
Besides, the family has had a domestic helper throughout the marriage and so the wife’s indirect contributions to home-making should be reduced, they argued.
Justice Choo said that having a domestic helper did not diminish the wife’s non-financial contributions to the marriage.
He said: “In long, single-income marriages like the present one, where the non-working spouse was the primary homemaker during the marriage, it is generally fairer and more equitable for the matrimonial assets to be divided equally.”?
“The non-working spouse’s efforts at home are not less important than that of the breadwinner. A union of the two is needed to make a marriage work… There was also no evidence that the wife was not an equal (although different) partner in this marriage.”
He also dismissed the man’s claim that he should get a larger share as he built up the matrimonial assets.
Justice Choo said: “In my view, such upward adjustments should only occur in special situations where the assets available for division are extraordinarily large and were obtained due to one party’s exceptional effort.”
The man’s lawyers cited cases involving assets ranging from about $20 million to $68 million, where the husbands were entrepreneurs who made an “exceptional effort and skill” to build their wealth.
But the couple’s assets do not fall into this “special situation” that Justice Choo had described, though no figure was given on the size of their assets.
Justice Choo noted that the bulk of the couple’s assets are from their matrimonial home, which had increased in value over time.
Mr Ivan Cheong, head of the Singapore family law team at Withers KhattarWong, noted there is a trend towards an equal division of matrimonial assets for long marriages.
He said: “This recognises the importance of both direct and indirect contributions to the marriage, and that the contributions of a homemaker spouse where there are children can be very significant, such that an equal division of the matrimonial assets is fair and equitable.”
“It recognises that marriage is a partnership of equal efforts (in the appropriate case).”
Ms Dorothy Tan, senior associate director of PKWA Law Practice’s family law and probate department, said the judgment also made clear that it is not a legal obligation, but a voluntary choice for parents to pay for their children’s postgraduate studies.
She added: “They cannot take on this voluntary expenditure at the expense of the other spouse’s needs.”