THE IMPLICATION OF COVID-19 ON ALIMONY/MAINTENANCE ORDERS
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many businesses, resulting in people suffering from job losses or pay cuts whereby their income has been completely stopped or significantly reduced. In turn, this would undoubtedly affect a divorced or separated spouse’s ability to meet their spousal and/or child maintenance obligation as ordered by the Court.
This article aims to provide options and guidance to divorced or separated spouses who are currently facing issues on the payment of spousal and/or child maintenance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reach an agreement
In the event that a party can no longer meet their obligations stated in the maintenance order, the first option is for the party to try and reach an agreement with his/her former spouse in reducing the amount of maintenance.
Needless to say, the party seeking to reduce the maintenance is expected to be honest about his or her financial situation and should not take advantage of the current pandemic to avoid their legal obligation in paying for maintenance. To avoid any distrust, disclose the pay slips or any evidence to show that the income has indeed suffered from a reduction.
Secondly, parties should always record the agreement in writing or have their respective lawyers draft and/or review the written agreement to safeguard themselves from any future disputes. It is also best for parties to be precise on the terms of the temporary variation of the maintenance, which may state that the original payments are to be resumed as soon as the income returns to normal.
Court Application: Variation of maintenance order
If an agreement could not be reached, a party seeking to reduce the amount of maintenance can apply for a variation order in Court to modify/vary the terms of the maintenance order by utilising either one of the following *provisions:
- section 83 of the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 (“LRA”), in which the Court has the power to vary or rescind orders for spousal maintenance;
- section 84 of the LRA, which provides the Court with the power to vary the terms of any agreement relating to spousal maintenance;
- section 96 of the LRA, where the Court is empowered to vary or rescind orders for the maintenance of children; or
- section 97 of the LRA, which provides the Court the power to vary the terms of any agreement relating to children maintenance.
*If an application is made under either of the above statutory provisions, the applicant is required to satisfy the Court that there has been a material change in circumstances.
The question that consequently arises in this situation would be: Whether financial difficulties resulting from an impediment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic qualifies as a material change in circumstances?
At the outset, it is important to highlight that the High Court had observed in the case of Jane Dripin v. Charan Jit Singh Santokh Singh  1 LNS 55 that the legal definition of ‘material change in circumstances’ is not cast in stone and it is ultimately dependent upon the facts and circumstances of each case.
An example where the Court had varied a wife’s maintenance order is the case of Anna Tay Siew Hong v. Joseph Ng Tiong Yong  3 CLJ 717, where the High Court took into consideration of the applicant husband’s elderly age, poor health and the fact that he was without any property or skills for employment. In the case of Lim Tian Deng v. Koh Poh Gaik  1 LNS 1220, the husband’s application to vary the children maintenance was also granted as his financial position took an adverse change when his company went under financial difficulties lined with high debts and liabilities.
It is, therefore, possible from the trend of common law authorities that Courts have viewed that financial hardship does in fact constitute as a material change in circumstances. The proviso is that the impediment must cause extreme financial hardship on the party to the extent that it is impossible for the applicant to sustain the maintenance order. The burden of proof would nonetheless lie on the party seeking to reduce maintenance. He or she needs to demonstrate that he/she is in such dire financial straits that existing legal obligations could not be met.
Premised on the legal principles applied by the Courts in considering an application for a variation of a maintenance order, a person having his or her principal source of income severely affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic can arguably be deemed to have satisfied the ‘material change in circumstances’ test to warrant such a variation. It must, however, be noted that other factors such as the income and financial needs of the other party and the needs and welfare of the children would also be considered in tandem with the ‘material change in circumstances’ test when the Court determines the merits of such an application.
It is important for parties wishing to temporarily change maintenance payments to seek immediately the other side’s agreement on the same until their financial situation improves, or risk being exposed to contempt proceedings for a breach of a court order.
For parties who are unable to reach an agreement, there is always the option to apply for a variation order in Court. However, parties must bear in mind that the outcome of the proceedings will largely depend on the facts of each case. Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is a novel situation, it may be possible that the current crisis would not have a long term impact on a party’s current financial situation. A party may only have had their income reduced temporarily for a period of time and their income may return to normal once the economy recovers in the future. The legal principles in which the Court would apply in this unprecedented situation and the possible new legal developments to come out of this remains to be seen.
By: Jaclyn Chang
DISCLAIMER: This article is for general information only and should not be relied upon as legal advice and/or legal opinion. Messrs Yeoh & Joanne accepts no liability for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in this article.
首先，必须强调的是，高等法院在Jane Dripin v. Charan Jit Singh Santokh Singh  1 LNS 55案件中指出，“实质性的情况变化”的法律定义不是一成不变的，它最终取决于每个案件的事实和情况。
法院更改妻子赡养费令的其中一个案例是Anna Tay Siew Hong v. Joseph Ng Tiong Yong  3 CLJ 717，而在该案中，高等法院考虑了申请人丈夫的年老、健康状况不佳以及他没有任何财产或就业技能的事实。在Lim Tian Deng v. Koh Poh Gaik  1 LNS 1220一案中，丈夫要求更改孩子赡养费的申请也获得批准，因为当他的公司陷入财务困境，负债累累时，他的财务状况发生了不利变化。
文章来自于：张美琪律师 (Jaclyn Chang Mei Qi)
文章翻译：李淑婷律师 (Lee Su Ting)
免责声明:本文仅供参考，不应作为法律建议和/或法律意见。Yeoh & Joanne律师事务所不会承担因依赖本文所含信息而产生的任何损失的责任。