Introduction To combat COVID-19, Singapore implemented one of its most extensive and restrictive measures on 7 April 2020 and the country entered into a two month-long quasi-lockdown. While this was widely understood as a necessary move to slow the spread of Covid-19, the impact done to the economy has been tremendous. The Government mandated that non-essential businesses must have their premises closed for the circuit breaker period. Many employees may find their pay being cut, put on furlough, or simply been laid off. If you are struggling to meet your maintenance obligations due your income being reduced as a result of these recent changes, what are your options regarding your maintenance obligation?
Communicate and negotiate with your ex-spouse
The first course of action you should take is to speak to your ex-spouse. Communicate clearly to them your current financial situation and help them to understand the difficulties you may be facing in meeting the maintenance obligations. Work with them to find alternative maintenance arrangements that will ensure both parties’ and their children’s needs are being met. This may also involve parties exploring various financial assistance schemes offered by the Government, such as the Temporary Relief Fund and the COVID-19 Support Grant. Parties should also find out if they are eligible for any other assistance schemes run by non-government organisations and charities. It would be in the best interests of parties to cooperate and work on finding an alternative maintenance arrangement on their own without bringing the matter to court. Litigation is a very costly affair and should be relied on only as a last resort. Furthermore, in light of the circuit breaker measures, the Family Justice Courts have adjourned all non-essential and non-urgent hearings scheduled from 7 April 2020 until the Circuit Breaker ends, with the adjourned cases to be heard on a later date. This means that you may not be able to make any application to court during the Circuit Breaker period. As such, parties should aim to be transparent in their discussions and be willing to share about their expected incomes and essential expenditures for the coming months to work out a feasible interim maintenance arrangement. It would be prudent for parties to document their discussions and agreement on the maintenance arrangement either through text messaging or email.
If negotiations fail – Apply to enforce or vary the maintenance order
In the event that parties are unable to resolve the matter on their own, parties may choose to file an application to either enforce or vary the maintenance order and have the court decide on the matter.
Enforcing the maintenance order
If you are having difficulties making the maintenance payments due to the economic impact of Covid-19, your ex-spouse may file for an application to enforce the maintenance order against you. If the application is successful, the court may:
- Order you to pay the outstanding maintenance arrears in monthly instalments or as a lumpsum payment;
- Make a Garnishee Order, or an Attachment of Earnings Order, which will require your bank or employer to deduct from your funds or salary the sum required for maintenance and transfer it directly to your ex-spouse’s bank account;
- Issue a Writ of Seizure and Sale, which allows the court to seize your property, sell it, and use the proceeds to pay the maintenance arrears;
- Order you to perform unpaid community service for up to 40 hours; and/or
- Order your imprisonment for up to 1 month for each month of maintenance owed.
As such it will be crucial for you to apply to vary the maintenance order to a lower amount if you foresee that you will not be able to make the maintenance payments. This will protect you from having an enforcement of maintenance application being taken out against you. Varying the maintenance order One may apply to vary the maintenance order on the basis that there has been a “material change in circumstances.” This can be very wide-ranging and may include scenarios such as either party having significant changes in their income, receiving an unexpected windfall or inheritance, or suffering an accident that prevents one from working. In your case, if Covid-19 has resulted in the loss of your business or your employment and made it difficult for you to continue making the maintenance payments, it is important that you prepare for your case by gathering evidence to show how there has been a material change in your circumstance. This may include documents such as the statement of accounts for your business, or your letter of termination if you are an employee. If you are seeking new employment but have been unsuccessful, or only found employment with greatly reduced pay, you should also document the same. Explore your options by consulting a family law specialist Whether you choose to negotiate with your ex-spouse on the maintenance agreements or have decided to take legal action, the process may be made a lot smoother with our family lawyers at PKWA Law Practice LLC. In view of the circuit breaker restrictions, we currently offer online consultations and the first one is free of charge. Please contact us at 6854-5336 to find out more.