People often talk about different grounds for divorce, like adultery or desertion, but there is only one ground for divorce in Singapore, and that is the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage.

The law defines four scenarios called facts. These facts are not standalone but are used to prove the ground for divorce: the marriage has irretrievably broken down.

There are plans to change the law in Singapore so that divorce may be obtained by mutual consent under the Women’s Charter Amendment Bill.

Learn more about the current divorce law in Singapore, how to prove irretrievable breakdown, and what the new proposals will mean for married couples.

What is an irretrievable breakdown?

Irretrievable breakdown is the only basis for divorce in Singapore, although there are plans to introduce divorce by mutual consent.

Irretrievable breakdown means the marriage has permanently failed and has no future. It is a purposely broadly defined concept to account for each marriage’s unique and individual circumstances.

There are four legally defined facts to help couples clarify and demonstrate whether their marriage has failed.

These facts are often cited individually as grounds for divorce but are only used to support the premise of irretrievable breakdown. The different facts help to categorise behaviour and information for a spouse to present their case when filing for divorce.

These are the four legally defined facts.

(1) Adultery

Adultery must be proven by the party alleging it, so there must be evidence unless the other spouse admits to it.

Often, a solicitor will recommend using a private investigator if the petitioning party thinks their spouse will deny it or might make even greater efforts to hide an affair when challenged.

Using a reputable private investigator and agreeing to all fees upfront is essential. A solicitor will usually be able to give you a recommendation.

(2) Unreasonable behaviour

If one party to the marriage behaves unreasonably so that the other spouse cannot be expected to carry on living with them, this constitutes unreasonable behaviour.

Some examples of unreasonable behaviour include:

  • Drink or drug addiction
  • Denial of sex
  • Anti-social behaviour
  • Violent behaviour
  • Mental or physical control or coercive behaviour
  • Refusing to socialise
  • Compulsive habits or behaviour like gambling
  • Failing to help with childcare
  • Working unnecessarily long hours

Because every marriage is different, what may be considered unreasonable behaviour in one marriage wouldn’t necessarily be classified that way in another.

Unreasonable behaviour is often contested and can be hard to prove. Whilst it should be based on facts, it often comes down to interpretation based on the unique situation between the couple.

(3) Desertion

Desertion is proven by one spouse leaving the other for at least two years immediately prior to the divorce petition.

The idea of a continuous period of two years is that this creates desertion based on fact rather than by allegation; the spouse has no intention of going back to the couple’s home.

(4) Separation

Separation works in two ways. If the couple agrees to the divorce on this basis, then it’s only necessary for the petitioning party to prove that they have lived apart for a continuous period of three years. Sometimes, a couple will create a Deed of Separation as formal confirmation.

If the couple do not agree to a divorce based on separation, then the petitioning party must demonstrate a continuous period of four years apart to use this as the basis for the divorce.

The separation must always be founded on choice, so living away for work reasons does not constitute evidence of separation. However, periods of remote work can be deducted from an otherwise continuous period of three years if the couple are living apart during non-working periods.

Couples who attempt periods of reconciliation or are forced back to communal living for financial or family reasons can still file for divorce based on separation. However, any period of time spent cohabiting must not be longer than six months, and this time cannot count towards the three or four-year total.

Deed of Separation

Separation can be the precursor to getting divorced, or it can be an alternative to divorce.

A Deed of Separation is a written document which is legally binding and signed by both parties to the marriage. It is often similar to the judgement made after an ancillary matters hearing when a couple divorces.

In the deed, both parties agree to live apart, and there is usually information about their arrangements. The parties to the marriage can negotiate their own terms. A Deed of Separation will commonly include the following:

  • Where they are going to live if they no longer share a residence.
  • The custody, care, and control of any children under the age of 18.
  • Access arrangements for the spouse who is not looking after the children.
  • Whether one spouse should provide maintenance to the other who is caring for the children.
  • How the assets of the couple are divided, such as ownership in the marital home, the car, and money in a joint bank account.

Separation is an alternative to filing for divorce. It’s an option for couples who have not been married for the requisite period of three years under Singapore law, but whose marriage has already irretrievably broken down.

Separation also allows for time away from the marriage to consider whether it is over, without the cost and finality of divorce proceedings. It will give both parties more time to decide.

Separation is also a viable alternative where there are young children, and the parents don’t wish to disrupt the family household, or if there is a strong religious element to the marriage which disapproves of divorce.

A Deed of Separation can also make divorce more straightforward and amicable; the custody of any children and the division of assets and money has already been agreed upon and set out in the document.

A deed does not smooth the path of divorce in all cases. However, the contents of the deed can be persuasive if one party to the marriage later decides to contest the arrangements at an ancillary matters hearing.

A deed is not essential to proving irretrievable breakdown; living apart is sufficient evidence. However, many couples prefer the certainty of setting out the practical and financial arrangements that a Deed of Separation offers.

Divorce by mutual agreement

Under the Women’s Charter, a new law for divorce is planned in Singapore. This allows for divorce by mutual agreement, so it is neither fault-based nor does it require evidence of separation.

The idea is to make divorce more amicable in situations where the marriage has irretrievably broken down and divorce is inevitable.

A less contentious situation is better for all parties’ psychological health and well-being, including the children. Divorce is also likely to be quicker with less animosity and cheaper if proceedings are not long and drawn out.

Parties must still be married for three years before they can divorce on this basis.

Final thoughts

Whatever the grounds for your divorce, it is always sensible to take legal advice. A lawyer can inform you of all the options and help you to consider other alternatives like mediation or separation.

Professional, impartial advice takes the sting out of the situation and helps make the pathway to divorce smoother and potentially quicker. It can have a bearing on costs and mitigate any negative impact on the wider family.

Final thoughts

Whatever the grounds for your divorce, it is always sensible to take legal advice. A lawyer can inform you of all the options and help you to consider other alternatives like mediation or separation.

Professional, impartial advice takes the sting out of the situation and helps make the pathway to divorce smoother and potentially quicker. It can have a bearing on costs and mitigate any negative impact on the wider family

This content was written and reviewed by a lawyer but it does not constitute legal advice. We always recommend engaging a lawyer before taking any legal action.

Frequently asked questions

Can I get a divorce if I have been married for less than three years?

Sections 93 and 94 of the Women’s Charter state that a marriage must be at least three years in duration for either party to be eligible to petition for divorce. However, there are some exceptions to this.

If one party to the marriage has experienced cruel and unreasonable behaviour, or can show exceptional hardship, it may be possible to petition for divorce less than three years from the marriage date.

What are ancillary matters?

Ancillary matters refer to the allocation of assets and property, plus the custody and access arrangements for any children.

The court relies on affidavits from both parties to assess income and means and makes a decision at an ancillary hearing. If the estate is worth more than S$1.5 million, then the case is heard in the High Court.

Are there any rules of residency regarding divorce in Singapore?

One of the parties to the marriage must be domiciled in Singapore when the divorce proceedings are filed or have been resident in Singapore for a minimum of three years prior to the divorce.

Domiciliary status means that Singapore is your permanent abode. Your lawyer will check this before starting the divorce process.