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Jul 17, 2011
special report: expat divorces
Unhappy endings

Expat divorces are on the rise here, and can get nasty because of cross-border legal issues
By Lydia Vasko

In a flat cluttered with furniture bought for more spacious living and happier times, Christine prepares to leave Singapore and the wreckage of her 20-year marriage behind.

Divorce was inconceivable when Christine - legal reasons prevent her real name from being used - arrived here from her native Belgium with her husband and son in 2007.

She had quit her full-time job as a securities credit controller, bid farewell to friends and family, and moved across the world to support her husband of 16 years.

He promised she would be treated like a princess. But four years later, his affair with a local woman and the devastating legal battle it triggered proved otherwise, with Christine left high and dry.

Expatriate divorces are on the rise in Singapore. Last year, 144 divorces involving expats were recorded here, up from 110 in 2009. Many expats still prefer to file for divorce in their home country where laws are often more favourable towards the non-working spouse.

However, other matrimonial-related claims such as maintenance orders, child custody agreements and personal protection orders are filed and enforced here.

When Christine, 50, first called women's advocacy group Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research), she was at the end of her tether. Her husband had taken a surreptitious trip to Belgium just after their 18th wedding anniversary in March 2009 and filed for divorce there without her knowledge.

When he returned to Singapore, he cancelled her credit cards, blocked her from their mutual accounts, took the car and his clothes, and walked out.

In a panic, she took a friend's advice and went to Aware's legal clinic where she was advised to file for maintenance - a court-ordered monthly allowance - from her husband.

But with no money and no options for legal aid as an expat, the Flemish- and French-speaking Christine had to file without a lawyer and defend herself in court in a language she has trouble understanding.

She won her case for maintenance, thanks to her experience in accounts and copying 15kg worth of documents from his office.

Without those papers - copies of his contracts, phone bills, tenancy agreements and expenses - she would have had no way of holding him financially responsible.

'Everything was in his name... Everything in there saved me,' she said.

Yet while she won maintenance, Christine is still dependent on her husband until the divorce is finalised in Belgium. Her rental flat, dependant's pass and allowance all come from him thanks to the maintenance order without which she would have been forced out of the country without her son.

Leaving Singapore, she runs the risk that he will violate their agreement and stop sending maintenance payments which are difficult to enforce from Belgium.

But with her nerves frayed, she is too emotionally drained after two hellish years to stay. Her son is now 18 and heading to university, her beloved dog died a month ago and her flat, she said, is falling apart. 'It's time for me to go.'

Her nightmare is becoming more common as divorce rates among expats rise, leaving firms specialising in international family law struggling to keep up with demand for their services.

Ms Franca Ciambella, managing director of Consilium Law Corporation, said one reason is that more expats now fulfil the three-year residency requirement to qualify for divorce under Singapore courts.

'I think it's increasing because expats stay in Singapore longer,' she said. 'Whereas before a lot of expat assignments were for two years, now more are staying three years or more.'

She declined to give exact numbers but said: 'Unfortunately, we get dozens of (divorce-related) calls every week and new clients all the time.'

Ms Wong Kai Yun, who has been practising family law for 16 years, has seen an increase in expat divorce cases which mirrors the increase in the expat population here.

Since starting her firm, Chia Wong LLP, in 2008, her expat cases have gone from one or two to five cases a month. She now handles up to 30 divorce-related expat cases a year.

'Expat divorces have the same issues as a local divorce - division of assets, maintenance and custody - but they're always more complicated due to inter-jurisdictional issues. You need to sort out applicable international laws, and which is the appropriate forum to file the divorce in,' she said. 'Then you must deal with the practical issues - cost of living, dependant's passes, how to effect cross-border access, and enforcement because not all countries allow judgments from another country to be carried out just like that.'

Expat divorces can get particularly nasty given that marriage licences, assets and salaries can be in multiple jurisdictions. Also, one spouse is often completely dependent on the other for financial support.

When an expat moves here, the company sponsors the employment pass. The expat, typically male, then sponsors his wife and children as dependants on his pass, which he can cancel at any time.

'When the marriage breaks down, the man is really in a powerful position to affect the family's stability in Singapore,' said Ms Poonam Mirchandani, partner at Mirchandani & Partners, which specialises in international family law. Her firm has similarly seen a spike in expat cases - matrimonial troubles account for 60 per cent of its case load, up from 20 per cent five years ago.

That power imbalance really hit home when American Nhu Pham, 37, moved here from Copenhagen in 2007, leaving a six-figure salary and a decade-long career in shipping, to marry a fellow American based here.

'I'm a very independent person so that was a big sacrifice for me. But I was promised a fairytale,' she recalled.

Lured by love and the luxury of expat life, she arrived on the wings of a whirlwind romance only to find that reality fell far short. Within a year, they sought counselling.

She said: 'Without an income, I really was crippled. I had to rely on him to give me an allowance. I felt like I was 13 asking my parents for an allowance again.'

Such situations are not uncommon. 'He's the economic power, the financial muscleman,' said Ms Mirchandani. 'He starts dictating terms and begins to control the amount of allowance he gives.'

Ms Pham, who has a bachelor's degree in English from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, and over a decade of work experience, said her efforts to find work were futile.

'I've sent out over 200 applications. I am highly qualified and I'm just astounded that I can't find work here.'

She blames this on her unstable residency.

'Because expat wives are seen as temporary or not serious about working, employers aren't interested.'

By January 2009, her marriage had fallen apart and Ms Pham had been out of work for over a year.

Hoping to end the union amicably, she asked her husband for 'something to start my life again'.

Insulted by his initial offer of a $5,000 lump sum which she felt was too low, Ms Pham saw a lawyer who informed her of her entitlements. Her husband 'flipped his lid'. An argument ensued during which the police were called. After that, their relationship deteriorated.

When their home's lease expired, her husband moved into a two-bedroom condo unit in Robertson Quay, leaving Ms Pham to fend for herself. 'I had nowhere to live.'

Because they are here on a dependant's or long-term visit pass, spouses going through divorce have trouble renting a place here. Even if they can somehow afford the rental, 'landlords don't want to enter into a tenancy agreement with a person who doesn't have an income', said Ms Mirchandani.

After moving into a friend's apartment, Ms Pham filed for maintenance. For 10 months, she survived on help from her family and her pre-marriage savings, most of which went to pay for her $50,000 legal bill.

'I didn't know how long my money would last. I would go to the store and wonder if I really needed toothpaste. I had to account for every dollar that I had.'

Her dependant's pass was eventually cancelled.

'I can't tell you the months that I wasn't able to sleep because I didn't know what my options were,' she recalled.

Now on a long-term visit pass sponsored by a Singaporean friend, Ms Pham is grateful for friends and her college degree, both of which supported her successful application to stay.

The dependant's pass ploy is becoming more common in the expat divorce wars. Expat wives, like foreign wives of Singaporean men, are on long-term social visit passes that are dependent on their husbands for renewal every year.

'They are in a similar situation where they have limited resources and very little help,' said Ms Arati Mali, an Aware counsellor and direct services executive for the past three years.

'The difference is that expats tend to be more educated and aware of their rights, but that does not mean that they have less to lose,' she added.

'The thing that works against foreign wives is that they may have a family to support at home for which they got married. So they're stuck, whereas expat wives can often turn to their families for help.'

Aware has received six calls from expat wives about cancelled dependant's passes in the past year, a debilitating situation made worse by the fact that these women often have children they are forced to leave behind.

'It's a very distressing situation for the woman,' said Ms Mali. 'She left everything she had in her home country and now, years later, she has to go back without career, without family, and without the children and she has no choice because she has no money.'

Even when the woman can fight the cancellation of her dependant's pass, she still cannot afford to stay here without her husband's financial support.

Ms Mali told The Sunday Times: 'There are even expat husbands who block credit cards so their wives cannot even afford to go back home.'

Women stuck in this legal and financial hole are advised to go to their embassy, which usually assists in their repatriation, but that might mean having to leave their children behind - but not always.

'My husband tried to push me through the gutter,' said Christine. 'Well, two years later, I'm still here. And I'm going to walk out of Singapore with my son. I'll walk out with my head held high.'