Expat or Foreigner Divorce in Singapore: 10 Legal Issues to Consider

Last updated on May 20, 2024

Unhappy foreign divorce couple with their arms crossed and backs facing each other

Getting a divorce can be a daunting and emotional process. This may even be more so for foreigners who are living or working in Singapore, as there are additional legal as well as practical considerations (e.g. immigration validity) to be mindful of.

If you are an expatriate or foreigner who is thinking of commencing divorce proceedings against your spouse in Singapore, here are 10 things to note before doing so:

Before Filing for Divorce

1. Do the Singapore courts have jurisdiction to hear your divorce proceedings?

Foreigners (i.e. non-Singapore citizens) generally do not have an automatic right for their proceedings to be heard before the Singapore Family Court.

However, there are 3 situations where a foreigner may commence divorce proceedings in Singapore:

(a) If either you or your spouse is domiciled in Singapore at the time of the divorce proceedings

Generally, the place where a person is domiciled is the place they treat as their permanent home.

The court will find that your domicile of choice is Singapore if, on the assessment of your background and circumstances, it was found that:

  • There is voluntary residence as an inhabitant rather than a casual visitor; and
  • You have an intention to remain in Singapore indefinitely.

If your spouse is a Singapore citizen, they will be automatically presumed to be domiciled in Singapore unless otherwise proven.

(b) If either you or your spouse is habitually resident in Singapore for 3 years preceding the divorce proceedings

Whether you are habitually resident in Singapore will depend on primarily 2 factors:

  • Whether you are voluntarily residing in Singapore; and
  • Whether you have a settled purpose of residence. “Purpose” is defined broadly. For example, it is sufficient if the purpose is “to study”, without necessarily specifying a particular school or institution or simply because you like to live in Singapore.

However, the habitual residence must be continuous for at least 3 years immediately preceding the divorce proceedings. If you were absent for an extended length of time within the 3-year period, then the court may find that you have not been habitually residing in Singapore.

For example, in Lee Mei-Chih v Chang Kuo-Yuan, the court found that a 12-month absence from Singapore had broken the period of habitual residence.

Do also note that for situations (a) and (b), parties need to have been married for more than 3 years before divorce proceedings can be filed.

This is unless the court agrees that there was exceptional hardship suffered by the applicant of the divorce proceedings or there was exceptional depravity on the part of the defendant.

In other words, the court will require a higher standard of hardship than “ordinary” levels of hardship that is present in all other breakdown of marriages and more than what an ordinary person should be reasonably asked to bear.

(c) If both parties are residing in Singapore and you are seeking to annul your marriage 

An application for nullity of marriage is different from divorce proceedings.

It is an application purporting to argue that there was no valid marriage in the first place, and should therefore be void.

To annul your marriage:

  • Both parties have to be residing in Singapore; and
  • Proceedings must commence within 3 years of the marriage.

2. What if you wish to apply for divorce overseas?

Conversely, if you disagree with your spouse that the divorce should be heard in Singapore instead of another country, you may apply to the court for a stay to suspend the divorce proceedings in Singapore.

If you succeed in staying the Singapore proceedings, you may continue or proceed with a foreign divorce proceeding.

You may wish to proceed with a foreign divorce proceeding if:

  • Your children are residing overseas (see Point 5); or
  • Most of the matrimonial assets are located overseas (see Point 6).

These are only some of the factors that you may wish to consider before making your decision. It would be best to consult an experienced family lawyer on the merits of your case in each jurisdiction so that you can make an informed decision that best protects your interests.

Filing for Divorce

3. Do you have a legal ground for divorce?

To get a divorce, applicants will have to prove that their marriage has irretrievably broken down. This can be shown in 5 ways:

  • When adultery is committed by the defendant, and the plaintiff (i.e. the applicant commencing the divorce proceedings) finds it intolerable to live with the defendant.
  • When the defendant has behaved in such a way that the plaintiff cannot be reasonably expected to live with the defendant.
  • When the defendant has deserted the plaintiff for a continuous period of at least 2 years preceding the divorce proceedings.
  • When the parties have lived apart for at least 3 years and the defendant consents to the divorce (e.g. for simplified uncontested divorce).
  • When the parties have lived apart for at least 4 years preceding the divorce proceedings and the defendant does not consent to the divorce (e.g. for contested divorce).

For more information on the legal grounds for a divorce, you may refer to this article.

Do note that from 1 July 2024, couples can cite mutual agreement as a reason for divorce if they agree that their marriage has broken down irretrievably. This will allow married couples to divorce without citing issues such as adultery. Divorce by mutual agreement may be cited by those divorcing under the simplified track and those on the normal track if they are not contesting the divorce.

Parties must provide the court with reasons to conclude that their marriage has irretrievably broken down, and show that they have made efforts to reconcile. They must also submit the arrangements that will be made in relation to their children and financial affairs.

Do note that the court has the power to reject an agreement to divorce if there is a reasonable possibility of reconciliation.

4. Is your pre-nuptial agreement enforceable in Singapore?

Any pre-nuptial agreement between the parties with regard to the ownership and division of their matrimonial assets will be taken into consideration by the courts in determining how the matrimonial assets will be divided.

Generally, the court seems to be in favour of upholding pre-nuptial agreements especially when the contract was determined and agreed abroad by the foreign individuals.

This is to prevent foreigners who wish to avoid enforcing their agreements from “forum shopping”, where prospective litigants look for jurisdictions where the laws are more favourable to their case.

Read our other article for more information on pre-nuptial agreements.

5. What should you do if your spouse cancels your Dependant’s Pass?

If your spouse works in Singapore under an Employment Pass or an S Pass, they are entitled to apply for a Dependant’s Pass on behalf of their spouse and/or children, so that they can stay in Singapore for the duration of their employment

It is unfortunately a common situation for foreigners holding an Employment Pass in Singapore to cancel their spouse’s Dependant’s Pass upon commencing divorce proceedings in Singapore. The cancellation of a Dependant’s Pass takes effect immediately.

This means that the spouse who relied on the Dependant’s Pass to reside in Singapore would no longer have a right to remain in the country after the expiry of their Short-Term Visit Pass, which would be issued upon the cancellation of the Dependant’s Pass.

The Short-Term Visit Pass generally allows you to stay in Singapore for a period of up to 90 days. Any Employment Pass, S Pass or Work Permit obtained through the Dependant’s Pass will be cancelled as well.

This can create a desperate situation for the spouse when the children are still in Singapore and when the divorce proceedings are still ongoing.

Apply for an interim injunction

In recent years, the court has been showing increasing willingness to allow for an interim injunction in situations where divorce proceedings are still ongoing.

An interim injunction will prohibit a spouse from terminating the Dependant’s Pass against the will of the other spouse.

You may apply for an interim injunction as well even if your Dependant’s Pass has already been cancelled by your spouse.

Apply for a Long-Term Visit Pass

Alternatively, you may choose to apply for a Long-Term Visit Pass which is valid for up to 2 years, subject to the approval of the Immigration and Checkpoint Authority, if:

  • Your child is a Singapore Citizen or a Singapore Permanent Resident; or
  • You are a mother or grandmother of a child or grandchild studying in Singapore with a Student’s Pass.

6. What will happen to your overseas matrimonial assets?

Even if your assets are located overseas, they will still be subject to division by the court so long as they fall within the meaning of “matrimonial assets” under section 112(10) of the Women’s Charter.

However, foreigners must keep in mind that it may be difficult to enforce a Singapore judgment in a foreign jurisdiction on any assets located overseas.

This is especially so for immovable properties, where the court may instead exercise their discretion not to deal with the immovable property directly.

In such a case, you may have to apply to the foreign jurisdiction where the immovable property is located, for a division of the asset.

This may require you to commence another divorce proceeding in the foreign jurisdiction. It is recommended that you contact a local divorce lawyer in the foreign jurisdiction for advice on the applicable laws.

For more information, please refer to our article on what happens to overseas matrimonial assets in a divorce.

After the Divorce has been Finalised

7. After divorce proceedings, are you entitled to remain in Singapore?

If you are working in Singapore under an Employment Pass, S Pass or Work Permit, you will be allowed to remain in Singapore for the duration of your employment.

However, if you were previously holding on to a Dependant’s Pass, you will not be allowed to stay in Singapore after the divorce proceedings have been finalised. This is because you would no longer qualify as your ex-spouse’s dependant. Your Dependant’s Pass will therefore be cancelled (as explained in Point 5).

If you are unable to seek employment in Singapore before the grace period of 30 to 90 days provided by the Short-Term Visit Pass, you may choose to apply for a Long-Term Visit Pass.

If you had previously applied for a Long-Term Visit Pass during the divorce proceedings, the pass can still be renewed so long as you have fulfilled the requirements as set out in Point 5.

You can apply to renew to Long-Term Visit Pass for up to 6 months before it expires.

8. After divorce proceedings, are your children entitled to remain in Singapore?

If your children are Singapore Citizens or Singapore Permanent Residents, they will be allowed to remain in Singapore.

If they are not, but are under the care and control of the parent who holds an Employment Pass or S Pass in Singapore, they can still remain in Singapore as dependants of that parent, so long as they are unmarried and under 21 years of age.

Your children may also apply for a Student’s Pass to remain in Singapore to pursue their full-time studies, under an approved educational institution.

9. What if you wish to relocate your children out of Singapore?

You may do so if you have the written consent of the other parent.

If not, even if you have obtained custody, care and control over your children, you must still apply to the court for permission if you wish to travel with or relocate your children outside of Singapore for more than 1 month.

Otherwise, you may be liable for international child abduction under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, to which Singapore is a signatory (see below).

For more information, please refer to our article on obtaining permission to relocate with your child overseas.

10. What if your ex-spouse has wrongfully taken your children out of Singapore?

If your ex-spouse has wrongfully taken your children out of Singapore in breach of your custody rights, your ex-spouse may be liable for international child abduction under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (‘Hague Convention’).

To qualify under the Hague Convention, your children must be below the age of 16 years and habitually resident in Singapore before they were forcefully taken.

There are certain actions you can take in response:

  • You may apply to the Family Court or inquire with the Singapore Central Authority (i.e. the Ministry for Social and Family Development) for assistance in making an application to the relevant overseas authority for the return of your children.
  • You may send an application for assistance directly to the Central Authority of the country your child was abducted.
  • You may choose to directly commence foreign judicial proceedings against your ex-spouse. It is advisable to seek a lawyer’s representation in such proceedings.

What if your children were brought to a country where the Hague Convention does not apply?

If your children were brought to a country where the Hague Convention does not apply, the abovementioned actions may not available to you.

In such a case, you would have to try to reach an amicable agreement with your ex-spouse on the return of your children.

If you are unsuccessful in doing so, you should seek legal advice from a lawyer in Singapore or in the country that your children have been taken to.

For more information, please refer to our article on international child abduction.

As foreigners are likely to face more complex legal issues when commencing divorce proceedings in Singapore, it is highly recommended to seek the advice of an experienced divorce lawyer to guide you to the process and ensure that your rights and interest are adequately protected.

Before getting a divorce
  1. Drafting a Deed of Separation in Singapore (Instead of Divorcing)
  2. Alternatives to Divorce in Singapore: A Practical Guide
  3. Process for Getting Divorced in Singapore (With Diagram)
  4. What are the Legal Grounds for Getting a Divorce?
  5. 3 Finance Questions To Ask Before a Divorce
  6. Practical Preparations for a Divorce
  7. How to Divorce Within 3 Years of Marriage in Singapore
  8. Getting Divorced: Documents and Evidence to Prepare
  9. Getting a Divorce Due to “Irreconcilable Differences” in Singapore
  10. Online Divorce in Singapore: How It Works and Should You Get One?
  11. How Can I Divorce Overseas After Marrying in Singapore?
Divorce Fees
  1. Comprehensive Guide to Divorce Fees in Singapore
Getting a Divorce Lawyer
  1. 7 Experienced Female Divorce Lawyers in Singapore (2024)
  2. Can a Divorcing Couple Use the Same Lawyer? Pros and Cons
  3. 7 Best Divorce and Family Lawyers in Singapore (2024)
  4. The Complete Guide to Choosing a Good Divorce Lawyer in Singapore
  5. Don’t Just Go for the Cheapest Divorce Lawyer in Singapore
  6. Find Highly Rated Divorce Lawyers in Singapore
  7. Child Custody Lawyers in Singapore: Do I Need One?
Proving Irretrievable Breakdown of Marriage
  1. How to Prove Adultery for Divorce Purposes in Singapore
  2. Getting a Divorce: How to Prove Desertion
  3. Getting a Divorce by Mutual Agreement in Singapore
  4. How to Prove Unreasonable Behaviour in a Singapore Divorce
  5. How to Prove Separation for a Singapore Divorce
Application for Divorce Part I: Dissolution of Marriage
  1. Your Spouse Doesn't Want to Divorce: What to Do
  2. Procedure for Dissolution of Marriage
  3. Simplified Uncontested Divorce vs Contested Divorce in Singapore
  4. Mandatory Parenting Programme Guide for Divorcing Parents
  5. Divorce Mediation in Singapore
  6. Divorce Application: What to Do If Your Spouse Cannot be Found
Application for Divorce Part 2: Ancillary Matters (Maintenance, Assets, Custody)
  1. Contempt of Court in Divorce: When You Can be Punished
  2. Guide to Co-Parenting for Divorcing Parents in Singapore
  3. Procedure for Ancillary Matters
  4. Maintenance of Spouse in a Singapore Divorce
  5. Filling in a Matrimonial Property Plan for a Singapore Divorce
  6. Dividing Matrimonial Assets in a Singapore Divorce
  7. What Happens to Your HDB Flat after Divorce?
  8. What Happens to Gifts Between Spouses During a Divorce?
  9. What Happens to Property and Assets Located Overseas Upon a Divorce in Singapore?
  10. Child Custody, Care and Control & Access: Singapore Guide
  11. Getting Divorced: Child Maintenance in Singapore
  12. Singapore Divorcee's Guide to Relocating Your Child Overseas
Post-Divorce
  1. How to Vary a Child Custody Order in Singapore
  2. How to Appeal Your Divorce Case in Singapore
  3. Divorce Certs in Singapore: How to Get a Copy and Other FAQs
  4. Transfer of Matrimonial Home to Ex-Spouse After Divorce
  5. Can Divorcees Buy or Rent HDB Flats, and How?
  6. What to Do If Your Ex-Spouse Does Not Provide Maintenance
  7. How to Vary a Maintenance Order After a Singapore Divorce
  8. What to Do If Your Ex-Spouse Denies You Access to Your Child
  9. Division of CPF Assets (Monies, House, Investments) After a Divorce
Expatriate Divorce
  1. Divorce for British Expats: Spousal Maintenance Under the Law of England and Wales
  2. Settling Ancillary Matters in Singapore After Foreign Divorce
  3. Typical issues in Singapore/England Divorces
  4. Immigration Issues for Divorcing Expatriates
  5. Can Foreigners Divorce in Singapore?
  6. Expat or Foreigner Divorce in Singapore: 10 Legal Issues to Consider
  7. Hague Convention: Overseas Child Abduction in Singapore Divorce
  8. Case Study: Cross-Border Child Custody and the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction
  9. Can British Expats in Singapore Choose to Divorce in England?
  10. Divorce for British Expats: Approach to Matrimonial and Non-Matrimonial Assets in England vs Singapore
  11. Divorce for British Expats: How the English Courts Deal with Financial Matters
Muslim or Syariah Divorce
  1. Fasakh in a Muslim Divorce in Singapore: Grounds & Process
  2. Divorce by Cerai Taklik: Guide for Muslim Wives in Singapore
  3. Muslim Divorce in Singapore
  4. Talak in a Muslim Divorce in Singapore (and Its Effects)
  5. Guide to Divorcing by Khuluk for Muslim Wives in Singapore
  6. Applying for Nafkah Idaah and Mutaah in a Muslim Divorce in Singapore
Other divorce matters
  1. Guide to Personal Protection Orders in Singapore
  2. Case Study - Love conquers All: The Divorce That Didn’t Happen
Annulment
  1. Annulling a Singapore Marriage: Requirements and Process
  2. What Happens to Your HDB Flat After an Annulment?
Separation
  1. Separation in Singapore Via Deed of Separation and More
  2. Judicial or Legal Separation in Singapore: When and How to File
Prenuptial and Post-Nuptial Agreements
  1. Prenuptial Agreements in Singapore
  2. Should You Make a Post-Nuptial Agreement in Singapore?