Symbolic but not consequential - household chores as part of divorce rulings in Hong Kong and Singapore?

Article 31 March 2021 Experience: Divorce and family lawyers

Household chores now have a value in the Yuan, but while the recent Chinese court ruling is highly evocative, it has no direct application in Hong Kong or Singapore.

Housework is mundane, but it has the power to generate explosive emotions and now, compensation.

In late February, a court in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ordered a man to pay 50,000 Yuan (approx. HK$60,000 or SG$10,300) to compensate his former wife for the housework she undertook during their five-year marriage.

The landmark ruling was made possible under PRC’s new civil code, which came into effect on May 2020. It gives divorcing spouses the right to request compensation if they shouldered more responsibilities at home.

The court order is highly symbolic. In awarding monetary compensation, the court has not only recognized the intrinsic value in housework, but it has also given it an absolute economic figure.

The ruling has also sparked lively discussions across the world, raising questions, including:

  • How one might ascribe value to unpaid domestic duties when the contributions are in both the measurable (time) and the unmeasurable (effort)?
  • The potential threat to fair and equitable property division when domestic duties have been seen to be ‘compensated’.

The adequacy of monetary compensation when domestic input can enable exponentially greater economic output. (For example, a primary caregiver’s activities at home allow the income-earner to focus on their career and thereby increase their earning potential. This effect may magnify over time.)

Questions are also being asked about the Chinese court ruling’s influence on other jurisdictions – will other courts move towards monetizing domestic duties during property division? The answer, at least in the foreseeable future, is probably no. Any such move would require legislative change.

While the PRC civil code will have little or no immediate impact on the laws of other distinct jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, it does provide an interesting starting point from which to compare differences in divorce laws.

Guiding principles of property division

Hong Kong – 50%: The equal division of matrimonial assets inherently recognizes domestic contribution.

The close connection between Hong Kong and the PRC does not extend to civil law. Hong Kong tends to follow UK precedents.

Following Charman v Charman in the UK (2007) and LKW v DD in Hong Kong, which was heard in the Court of Final Appeal in 2010, the guiding principle for splitting matrimonial assets in Hong Kong has been equal division. The principle holds true irrespective of any disparities in monetary/asset contribution, implicitly recognizing any efforts that fall within the broad category of ‘housework’.

That said, an equal division is only the starting point. In extenuating circumstances, such as substantial inheritance by one party, the court will take into consideration the future needs of the financially weaker party in their final ruling.

As a general point of interest, the ubiquity of domestic helpers in Hong Kong would make measuring domestic contributions a more complex task than in the PRC.

Singapore – ‘Just and equitable’, on a case-by-case basis.

There is no general starting position when it comes to the division of marital assets in the City-State.

Singaporean family courts take into account a range of factors in property division hearings. Consideration is given to the length of the marriage; any children and related custody arrangements; ‘direct’ (financial) contributions; the total pool of joint marital assets and ‘indirect’ contributions’ – the non-tangible inputs such as caregiving, household chores and the sacrifices of careers for the wellbeing of the family.

While there is no absolute formula, the existence of children gives more weight to indirect contributions as does the marriage length. In Singapore, a marriage is considered short if it lasts less than 10 years.

Domestic helpers are also commonly used by Singaporean families, presenting similar ‘measuring’ challenges to those of Hong Kong families.

Other comparison points for the three jurisdictions:

Hong Kong

Singapore

China

Prenuptial Agreements

Hong Kong

Not legally binding, but morally persuasive.

Singapore

Not automatically enforceable and the court will assess on a case-by-case basis.

China

Enforceable as long as the prenuptial agreement meets all legal requirements.

The minimum period of marriage before couples can seek divorce

Hong Kong

One year of marriage, otherwise, permission from the Court is required.

Singapore

Three years of marriage.

China

One year.

Period of separation or 'cooling-off period' before divorce can be granted

Hong Kong

None.

Though we note there seems to be a widespread misconception that a long separation is required.

Singapore

Three years with both parties’ agreement and four years without agreement. (Unless ‘unreasonable behavior’ can be established.)

China

30 days.

The legislation came into effect on 1st January 2021.

Contacts