Let's Talk Law: The Singapore Women's Charter and Female Property Owners

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What privileges do Singaporean women have, especially when it comes to common matters such as property rights upon marriage, and the settlement in the unfortunate event of a divorce?

According to a report from the World Bank, only 6 countries give men and women equal rights. And with a global average of 74.71 points, this means women around the world get about three-quarters of the rights that a man has.

Intrigued, I did some digging and found the Global Gender Gap Index 2020 — a list of countries ranked by how well they did in closing the gender gap. Singapore ranks 54 out of the 153 countries listed, with a gender gap of 72.4%. 

In comparison, the top country Iceland has a score of 87.7%, and the last country Yemen has a score of 49.4%.

Actually, we are pretty forward-thinking. We’ve had a Women’s Charter Act in place since 1961: One small step for lawmakers, but one big push in the direction of gender equality in Singapore.

What does this mean for women — especially married women — who own, co-own or intend to own/co-own property in Singapore? Let’s delve into some aspects of the Women’s Charter to find out.

Disclaimer: I’m not trained in law, so this is my layman’s explanation. If you’re really in a legal bind, please seek the help of a lawyer.

 


Equal rights in running the home

Section 46 (4): The husband and the wife shall have equal rights in the running of the matrimonial household.

As a rule, both my husband and I need to agree on key matters of the home before any decision is made. And we also try our best to split the bills and chores as well. Although this sounds rather ambiguous as some matters are not easily quantified (and in the event of judicial proceedings, might need some debate), it means that a married woman has equal say in how she wants to run the family home.

 


What’s mine, isn’t “ours”

Section 51 (a): Subject to the provisions of this Act, a married woman shall — be capable of acquiring, holding and disposing of, any property.

Section 52. Some key points:

(1) Subject to the provisions of this Act, all property which —

(a) immediately before 15th September 1961 was the property (including the separate property) of a married woman or held for her separate use in equity;

(b) belongs at the time of her marriage to a woman married after 15th September 1961; or

(c) after 15th September 1961 is acquired by or devolves upon a married woman,
shall belong to her in all respects as if she were a feme sole and may be disposed of accordingly.

(2) Nothing in subsection (1) shall —

(a) be construed as affecting adversely the right of any married woman to any property which she had immediately before 15th September 1961; or

(b) interfere with or render inoperative any valid restriction upon anticipation or alienation attached to the enjoyment of any property by virtue of any provision contained in any written law in force immediately before 15th September 1961, or in any instrument executed before that date.

Further reading:
Section 56: Remedies of married woman for protection and security of property
Section 59: Questions between husband and wife as to property to be decided in summary way
Section 60: Married woman as an executrix or trustee

For example, while I own my HDB flat with my husband, as an individual, I can go ahead and buy other properties as investment, and those remain as mine alone. I don’t need to share with him whatever profits I make just because we’re married. In short, in the eyes of the law, when it comes to co-owning property with your spouse, you are both viewed as individual owners.

Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule; for instance, in the event of a divorce, a judge might rule that due to the woman’s role in maintaining the household and family, she could get a share of the assets, even if some of them are in the sole name of her husband. In certain circumstances, the husband might also be entitled to financial support.

Do also take note that when purchasing your property, you either choose a Joint Tenancy or Tenancy-in-Common. Read about the difference in an article we previously published here.


Housekeeping allowance is a shared asset

Section 54: If any question arises as to the right of a husband or wife to money derived from any allowance made by the husband for the expenses of the matrimonial home or for similar purposes, or to any property acquired out of that money, the money or property shall, in the absence of any agreement between them to the contrary, be treated as belonging to the husband and the wife in equal shares.

Whatever we use this allowance money to buy, if there’s no prior arrangement, is also shared 50-50 by us.

Say my husband gives me $1,000 every month as household allowance. There’s no pre-existing agreement between us, so it’s assumed, in the eyes of the law, that our share to this is 50-50, with the purpose of maintaining our home.

This is what my husband and I do: As both of us are working full-time, we set aside an equal amount every month in our joint account. And this goes towards common expenses such as household bills, air-con cleaning fees, property tax, a replacement TV when ours spoilt last year, and so on.

 

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Who gets what in the event of a divorce?

We’ve written about this topic before: What happens to your BTO when you divorce?

Of course, no one wants their marriage to end in divorce. But it’s always good to be clued in, just in case… you know, just asking for a friend.

Section 112 (some key points):

(1) The court shall have power, when granting or subsequent to the grant of a judgment of divorce, judicial separation or nullity of marriage, to order the division between the parties of any matrimonial asset or the sale of any such asset and the division between the parties of the proceeds of the sale of any such asset in such proportions as the court thinks just and equitable.

(2) It shall be the duty of the court in deciding whether to exercise its powers under subsection (1) and, if so, in what manner, to have regard to all the circumstances of the case, including the following matters:

(a) the extent of the contributions made by each party in money, property or work towards acquiring, improving or maintaining the matrimonial assets;

(b) any period of rent-free occupation or other benefit enjoyed by one party in the matrimonial home to the exclusion of the other party;

(7) Where, pursuant to this section, the court makes an order for the sale of any matrimonial asset and for the division, application or settlement of the proceeds, the court may appoint a person to sell the asset and divide, apply or settle the proceeds accordingly; and the execution of any instrument by the person so appointed shall have the same force and validity as if it had been executed by the person in whom the asset is vested.

A clear-cut case is that when buying your HDB flat, you bought it under the fiance-fiancee scheme. This makes it your matrimonial home. Property that is not a “matrimonial home” is excluded. For example, it can be a house left to you by a relative, but it remained solely yours. This means you didn’t use it as your family home, and your husband didn’t help you with your extensive $100,000 renovation works.

Then, there are other factors that come into play, depending on the property’s terms and conditions. Are you allowed to sell the flat (i.e. you haven’t hit HDB’s minimum occupancy period)? Can one party retain the property?

The court will also take into consideration other factors as outlined above… so the settlement will likely not be a straightforward 50-50 split. What makes things more complicated: If there’s a child/children involved and there are custody disagreements, both parties are not on cordial terms, and so on.

 

You are legally allowed to ask for financial support

Section 113:

(1) The court may order a man to pay maintenance to his wife or former wife, or order a woman to pay maintenance to her incapacitated husband or incapacitated former husband —
(a) during the course of any matrimonial proceedings; or
(b) when granting or subsequent to the grant of a judgment of divorce, judicial separation or nullity of marriage.

Further reading: Sections 114-121 on maintenance

For those who might go through a difficult divorce, there are still provisions for financial support. In certain circumstances, a woman can legally order her ex-husband to provide financial support; and a man can also receive alimony from his ex-wife.

Though not directly related to property, it can be difficult to upkeep a family as a single parent, let alone buy a new home or rent a new place — while juggling a full-time job or seeking employment if she was once a stay-at-home-mum.

 

This article was written by Mary Wu, and edited by Eugenia Rosaline Shlaen.

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