When parents divorce, child custody is one of the most urgent and emotional issues to be resolved. In Singapore, the term “child custody” means having the legal authority to make major decisions for your children, such as those pertaining to health, education, or religion. We use the term “care and control” to refer to the parent who has primary physical custody of the child and is responsible for day-to-day decisions.
Contrary to popular belief, Singapore courts do not automatically award sole care and control of the children to the mothers. Singapore courts are guided by the Guardianship of Infants Act and make a careful examination of each individual family situation, keeping the child’s best interests at the heart of their inquiry. With regard to custody, the Singapore courts are usually inclined to award “joint custody” as a form of recognizing the presence of both parents in the child’s development. It is common for the Singapore courts to award “joint custody” to the parents, even if they award sole care and control to only one parent.
Here are nine common factors the courts weigh in determining which parent should have care and control over their child in Singapore.
The primary caregiver of the child
The court will examine which parent has been the primary caregiver of the child. This is in line with the principle to maintain the status quo for the child. In particular, it will assess which parent has been primarily responsible for meeting most of the child’s daily needs, such as preparing meals for them, making doctor appointments, or taking them to school and/or other activities. Previously, courts presumed that mothers played this role, but in today’s day and age, the court does consider both parents’ contributions.
The court also considers the relationship between each parent and the child and determines which parent has a better understanding of the child’s daily needs and likes. It also examines which parent the child is most likely to turn to when in need of emotional support. In some instances, the court recognises the maternal bond and may give it appropriate consideration. In this regard, the court applies the “welfare principle” where the paramount consideration shall be in the best interests of the child.
Children should live in the healthiest physical environment possible. The court will assess each parent’s living situation, examining whether the home is stable, has sufficient space, is in a clean, safe neighbourhood, and is near the child’s school or other relatives.
The court may also evaluate each parents’ financial situation, income, job, or job prospects. A parent with a higher income will not necessarily have an advantage over the other parent, as this is only a small factor. Women who are financially dependent on their husbands will not necessarily lose care and control of their child because of their financial situation. It is also noted that the child’s expenses are a joint parental responsibility. This means that the parent with the care and control of the child will also receive child maintenance from the other.
Parents with severe physical or mental health issues may negatively impact the child’s well-being. The court will examine whether the parent’s health issues would prevent them from caring for the child or making good decisions on their behalf.
The court will assess whether the lifestyle of the parent reflects a child-centered focus. It will take into account parental behaviour, such as the amount of time a parent has for the child outside of work. The court will also assess if the parent shows an interest in the child’s well-being and education. Where there is evidence to show that the parent is involved in vice activities such as gambling and consuming drugs, alcohol, and/or other intoxicants, the court is unlikely to grant that parent care and control.
Domestic abuse allegations
Singapore courts take allegations of domestic abuse very seriously. If an investigation shows that a parent has engaged in domestic violence against his or her spouse or children, the court may find that parent “unfit” for both custody and care and control of the child. In such circumstance, the court may order an evaluation report by the Family Court counsellor before coming to a decision.
Child’s Reasonable Preferences
The court may sometimes consider a child’s opinion about his or her living arrangements, depending on the child’s age and maturity level. This would be done either by way of interviews with the judge concerned or by appointing a Child Representative to oversee the matter. However, there have been situations where some parents may influence a child to express a preference for them and/or coach a child prior to the interview with the judge. To this end, the Singapore Court is usually careful when implementing such a procedure and has emphasised that such a procedure is seldom practiced unless the child is of sufficient maturity and has expressed a very strong view of who he or she desires to live with.
There are also instances where the parents have already agreed on custody, care, and control of the child’s arrangement. The court will give substantial weight to this agreement, as long as it aligns with the child’s best interest. In fact, the Singapore court encourages parents to achieve an amicable outcome as this has a positive impact on the child when parents are able to cooperate and compromise as much as possible.