Are parents always liable for their children's maintenance?

This article was written by Eric Lip and Emelia Kwa, associates at OTP Law Corporation. Both passages below are a fictional re-telling of the facts of the case, to provide each party’s possible perspectives.

UYT v UYU – Are parents always liable for their children’s maintenance?

A son’s thoughts

My parents divorced when I was 8 years old. Back then, they had decided that my dad wouldn’t have to support me financially. For the rest of my life, my mum was the one who single-handedly raised me and supported me, without any help from my dad.

Over the years, my dad began life anew and remarried. I now have two step-brothers. My dad has been able to send them overseas. I’ve been thinking about going overseas for the longest time and even told my dad about this. He has never protested against funding me for it.

 Once I graduated from polytechnic, I realised that the best way to begin my career was to pursue a degree in Journalism. In support of this, I did extensive research on my options. Due to my grades, my best bet was to head to Canada and take up a preparatory course before trying for admission into the University of Alberta.

 I spoke to my dad about my decision. While somewhat hesitant, he did agree to support me financially, and asked for particulars on my intended courses to be given to him. I did this, and even gave him the Letter of Acceptance from my preparatory course.

 To my surprise and dismay, my dad eventually fell silent and didn’t respond to my messages.

 I was stuck. I couldn’t obtain any bank loans for my education, and my mum was barely earning enough to make ends meet. Because dad wouldn’t answer me, I couldn’t start my life afresh and missed the school intake that year.  

I felt that I had no choice but to file an application for maintenance.

A father’s plea

Dear Son,

You were 8 years old when your Mother and I got a divorce in October 2004. At the time, we agreed that I will not be paying any maintenance for you. Through the adversity, your Mother has provided well for you financially and brought you up capably.

It has been 14 long years since then and we have all started our own new lives.  I am now happily remarried and have two sons.

But dear son, why have you started this lawsuit against me?

You know I have always supported you and encouraged what you wanted to do. When you told me about your plans to study overseas, I was genuinely glad to hear that you wanted to further your education. I wanted to support you, both in spirit and financially. I wanted you to improve yourself.

However, I had my reservations. You’ve had a tough time in a local polytechnic and haven’t been able to do well academically. I am worried about you. Would going to an overseas university be the best option for you? There are always many other routes to success. You are now already 22, and you have a bright future ahead.  

I know you have other reasons for wanting to leave. You do not like to stay in Singapore even though that is your home. You do not like the rules, you do not like National Service. Studying overseas provides an opportunity to escape to a different country.

As a father, all I ask is for you to be sure of your decisions. If you truly want to improve yourself and further your education, study hard in Singapore first and re-take your exams before applying for universities. Do not make hasty decisions, and do not be selfish.

I do not wish to compromise on your welfare, but I have a family to feed and provide for as well. Attending university is for you to improve your employability in the future. You should not see it as some sort of last opportunity for you to spend someone else’s money while enjoying yourself. This sudden “lump sum payment” is a significant financial demand from me.

Dear son, do understand my difficult predicament. I know I have a duty to provide for you as a parent. I am happy to fulfil that duty and I truly do want to see you succeed. But do not exploit this for the wrong reasons.

 Love,

Dad

Case analysis

This case revolved around whether a father needed to pay for his son’s maintenance, which was mainly for his education overseas.

The father, who was unrepresented, sought to argue that he should not have to pay.

Reasoning

The Court took a 3-step approach in determining whether maintenance needed to be ordered:

  1. Was maintenance necessary?
  2. If yes, was there refusal or neglect on the father’s part?
  3. If yes to 2., what was a reasonable amount of maintenance?
  • Was maintenance necessary?

Parents have a duty to maintain their children until they reach 21 years old. While the son here was above 21, he fell under an exception covered by s 69(5)(c) of the Women’s Charter, i.e. he should be maintained as he was still schooling.

It was found that maintenance was indeed necessary. This was based on the son’s ability to prove that his desire to study in Canada was to improve his employability in the workforce.

  • Was there refusal or neglect on the Father’s part?

The question before the court was whether the father had neglected or refused to provide reasonable maintenance, or whether he simply could not afford to do so.

They found that there had been “some representation made to the Son that the Father would assist financially”. This was since an email had been sent from son to father regarding the tuition costs. Such an email would only have been sent if the father had agreed to support him.

There had also been no evidence from the father showing that he was unable to afford supporting his son. Instead, his reasons for denying financial support ranged from:

  1. The son did not give him the relevant documents for a bank loan and in any case, his income did not qualify him for a loan;
  2. He was doubtful that his son would do well in his education overseas; and
  3. He alleged that his son wanted to go overseas not for education but for some other agenda.

Thus, it was found that the father had refused to contribute to the son’s maintenance on the basis of leading a lifestyle he disapproved of.

  • What is a reasonable amount of maintenance to be paid?

Ultimately, the court decided that the father would have to pay 60% of the son’s education expenses (i.e. tuition fees, airfare, accommodation and textbooks). This was based on the income of both parents.

In determining this, the court bore in mind the basic principle that both parents should shoulder the duty to maintain their children. They thus recognised that the son was not completely reasonable in seeking that the father to be solely responsible for maintaining him.

Concluding remarks

Although the parents had originally agreed that the son would not need to be maintained, this did not preclude the son from taking out a maintenance application by himself per s 69(3)(b).

Parents thus need to know that their duty to maintain their children remains, regardless of what previous court orders have been given. This would align with how orders for maintenance can be varied, so long as a material change in circumstances has arisen and been proven.

As it stands, the father has appealed against the decision in the case cited. 

Familial disputes are never easy, and are made more gut-wrenching when the parties are parent-child. While a son/daughter undoubtedly has the legal right to apply for maintenance, resorting to litigation will inevitably worsen relationships. Perhaps the parties are better served adopting a peace approach where a safe environment can be created for grievances to be aired? This can be by way of mediation or negotiations through family lawyers.

Whether it is negotiations or mediation, the likelier outcome will be one within parties’ financial and even emotional means. Parties’ relationship may remain unscathed, or even stronger, after they communicate. 

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