Know Your Rights - Maintenance and Custody
Sheila* has been married for twelve years to Jin*. They have three children together; Lina* who is the youngest at four years old, Lorna* who had just turned six and Leslie* who had started Standard Two at his primary school. Soon after their marriage, Jin began to exhibit more of his bad temper, and started to yell at her for the smallest thing - for coming home late from work or for letting the dinner grow cold. When Sheila was pregnant with their first child, Leslie, she thought that things would change. However, Jin seemed to have become more abusive. He blamed her of being selfish when she said she needed time to think over his suggestion of her quitting her job because of the child. To appease him, Sheila decided to stop working. Her colleagues threw her a farewell party and though Sheila asked Jin to join her, he refused by saying that he had some work to do. When she came home, he began shouting irrational accusations at her and when she tried to defend herself, Jin slapped her. Sheila could not believe it. She was broken hearted. To think things through, Sheila decided to live with her mother for a few days.
When she was there, Jin called everyday. He was remorsely and pleaded for her to go back to him. Her mother persuaded Sheila to return to her husband. She adviced Sheila that there will always be problems within marriages, and that she should try to work things out. Sheila decided to give him a second chance. She hoped that the birth of their first child would make him a more responsible and loving husband and father. Unfortunately, things only became worse after the birth of Leslie. Jin began to hit her more frequently and severely. Each time he would appear repentant and begged for her to forgive him. This always convinced Sheila to give him chances, but it never lasted. After a few days, Jin would go back to his abusive and violent self. As the years went by, the peaceful and gentle periods became shorter and shorter.
Sheila has thought of leaving Jin, but she is worried about their children. Jin oftened threatened her that if she leaves him, he will take the children away. His usual phrase would be" the courts will never give you custody. You have no money and no job". So she tolerated his behaviour. When Jin screamed at her, she would remain silent. When he hit her, she would try not to cry. When he came home late from work, she questioned him less and less. All her joy is from her three children, and she thought she would endure Jin until the children grew up.
Sheila had to seriously consider this decision when one day, she caught Leslie shouting profanity at Lorna. Leslie had obviously learnt this from his father when Jin abused her. That night, when she brought this up to Jin, they had another argument. Then Leslie came to their bedroom and shouted, "Can the both of you please stop this! I am tired of listening to you argue all the time". Sheile broke down. She knew she could not let her children grow up in this violent environment, but what could she do? She had no job. She kept worrying about what Jin had said about the courts not giving her custody because she had no income. Even if she had custody, how could she provide for them?
The two main questions that Sheila has are: will she be able to keep the children, and how is she going to financially support them. This is known legally as custody and maintenance. Sheila will have to apply to the court for these two matters, and to do so, she will have to engage a lawyer. If she does not have money to appoint one, she can apply to the Legal Aid Bureau or Legal Aid Centre for legal help (for numbers, please contact a women's organisation).
Can I keep the children?
- You can apply to court at any time for custody of the children, even if no divorce or separation case is ongoing.
- Generally, the court usually gives custody to the mother, especially if the child is less than seven years old.
- The most important factor in deciding this is the welfare of the child. This not only means taking care of the child financially, but also providing him/her with support, love and security. The parents will be consulted on this matter, and if the child is old enough, s/he will be consulted too.
- If there is more than one child, one parent may not necessarily have custody over all the children. However, as far as possible, the children will not be separated.
- If custody is given to the father, you can still visit your children regularly by applying for visitation rights from the court.
What about maintenance?
- You can also apply to the court for maintenance if you are the wife or ex-wife, even if no divorce or separation case is ongoing.
- How much you will get depends on how much you need, and how much your husband can afford to pay. This is generally based on things like both your incomes, expenses and who is responsible for the breakdown of the marriage. If you are a survivor of domestic violence and have made police reports on the abuse before, you can bring this to the court as evidence. You can also use the police reports as evidence when applying for custody.
- The maintenance can be in one lump sum instead of instalments. You can also apply to the court to order his employer to deduct some of his salary to be put into your account monthly. On the other hand, you can also make the maintenance secured by getting a court-appointed trustee to hold his assets. The trustee will then pay you the maintenance with interest or income from the assets.
- If you wish to change the terms of the maintenance, you can apply to the court at any time.
- If he failed to pay the maintenance, it is important to note that you can only sue for it if it has not been more than three years.
- The maintenance stops if you remarry or cohabitate with another person. If the maintenance is paid by a court-appointed trustee, it will stop upon your death or your husband's.
- How long will it take? Anytime between one month to around two years. Therefore, you might want to consider your options while waiting for the court's decision.
If you need more information about custody or maintenance issues, contact the Legal Aid Bureau or Legal Aid Centre, or a women's organisation.
*Names changed to protect WAO's client's confidentiality.
Prepared by Jaclyn Kee
Women's Aid Organisation - 20 Years of Service to Women and Children
Fortnightly Column by WAO on Sunday Mail (Reprinted with permission from Sunday Mail)