In the termination of a marriage, the Court has the power to order that the husband make regular maintenance payments to the wife. In certain situations, the Courts will make an order of nominal maintenance – basically reducing monthly maintenance to $1. In ATE v ATD  SGCA 2, the Court of Appeal provided some guidance on when it is appropriate to order nominal maintenance.
The purpose of nominal maintenance is to preserve the wife’s right to apply for substantive maintenance should the need arise in the future. Once an application for maintenance is rejected, the wife is precluded from applying for maintenance should the need arise in the future.
The Court of Appeal here laid out the applicable principles when considering nominal maintenance:
- Nominal maintenance is not automatically granted.
- It is not sufficient for a wife to say simply that nominal maintenance should be given because her situation in the future might change. The Courts do not compensate parties for the vicissitudes of life and it is not the duty of the husband to be a "general insurer of sorts".
- The precise facts and circumstances of the case must be taken into consideration.
- The purpose of a maintenance order must be borne in mind. Maintenance is aimed at preserving the wife’s standard of living during the marriage. It is not meant to provide life- long dependency on the former husband, and must take into account the former wife's duty to try and regain self-sufficiency.
The Court of Appeal then cited a few examples from past decisions where nominal maintenance was not ordered:
- Where the husband was ill and had little income, while his wife had amassed a sizeable sum;
- Where the husband was heavily in debt and unlikely to find a job due to his age, while his wife had been awarded substantial assets;
- Where the marriage was short, a clean break was needed, and the wife had good earning capacity and good share of the assets although she was unemployed; and
- Where the wife owned significantly more assets than the husband and the parties were financially independent.
Holding of the Court of Appeal
In this case, the husband and wife terminated a five year marriage, and the wife sought maintenance. While the High Court granted the wife nominal maintenance, the Court of Appeal disagreed.
The wife could not articulate any reason why she should be entitled to nominal maintenance other than the possibility that something might happen to her in the future. Further, the marriage was a short one, and the wife was at least as professionally successful as the husband.
On the facts, the Court found that the wife was more than capable for taking care of herself, and could not find any reason to enforce on the husband a continuing obligation to maintain the wife. Therefore, the Court of Appeal set aside the nominal maintenance order.
This judgment provides welcome guidance on the issue of whether nominal maintenance ought to be sought.
The Court of Appeal observed that "The future is impossible to predict and that something untoward could happen is always possible." Therefore, to ask for nominal maintenance in order to be a general insurer against misfortune is not a justifiable basis.