The House You and Your Spouse Are Living In May Not Be Your Matrimonial Home By Chloe Chua of OTP Law Corporation

To most couples, their matrimonial home is simply the place where they reside together. The legal concept is straightforward: a matrimonial home is one where a couple has purchased a property in which they subsequently stay in for an extended period of time during the marriage.

However, it gets complicated when the property in question is co-owned by others outside of the marriage e.g. one of the spouse’s family members.

This issue of whether co-owned family property can be considered a matrimonial home liable to the division of assets was decided in the ground-breaking case of VOD v VOC and another appeal [2022] SGHC(A) 6. (This is also the case of the S$1 million red packet that has recently taken the local news scene by storm.) The facts relating to the Property are as follows:

a. The Husband’s father had financed the Property solely and had registered the Husband, his mother and brother as joint tenants. It was undisputed that the Husband had a one-third share in the Property. The Husband’s family has resided in the Property since it was purchased, prior to parties’ marriage.

b. The Wife moved into the Property after the marriage. In preparation for the arrival of parties’ son, two bedrooms in the Property were renovated for the parties. The renovations were paid for by the Husband’s father.

c. The Wife moved out with the son after residing in the Property for 33 months i.e. almost 3 years.

The Wife sought to include the Husband’s one-third interest in the Property as part of their matrimonial assets in their divorce proceedings. Her basis was that the parties had lived together in the Property, and it had functioned as their matrimonial home. She also alleged that much effort and moneys were expended to renovate the two bedrooms for their exclusive occupation.

Conversely, the Husband’s stance was that the Property was his parents’ matrimonial home and therefore not that of the parties. According to him, parties only stayed there while they continued to search for their matrimonial home.

The Court held that the Property was not the matrimonial home of the Parties, for the following reasons:

d. The Husband’s one-third interest was a pre-marital gift from his parents which falls outside the definition of “matrimonial asset” as stipulated in Section 112(10) of the Women’s Charter (1). The Wife did not allege that either party had made substantial improvement to the Property during their marriage. Her claim was that parties had resided there for 33 months as their matrimonial home. To this, the Court’s finding at [42] was that “A legal interest coupled with residence will not necessarily mean that the property in question constitutes a matrimonial home” and that “mere residence alone is generally not enough.”

e. The Court found that parties were living in an extended household where the Husband’s father and mother were the true “master” and “mistress”. The parties did not have dominion or make financial decisions regarding the property or the running of the household. As such, the Property was found to be the father and mother’s matrimonial home. The Court has introduced an unprecedented consideration at [39] that “Whether or not other people have lived in the property and how it was used such that it served as their home instead of a matrimonial home for the parties is a relevant circumstance.”

This sudden added requirement of “control” or “dominion” does not sit well with most laypersons’ (and even most legal practitioners’) understanding of a matrimonial home.

From the facts, this was not a case where the parties had little to no say over the Property. The Wife was involved in corresponding with contractors regarding the renovation of their bedroom and the son’s nursery in the Property. It was acknowledged that these 2 rooms were for the couple and their son’s sole occupation. The Husband was also unable to prove that their living arrangement was temporary. Yet, their involvement was deemed as “limited”, which discounts their control over the Property.

This notion implied that a property can only be the home of one couple or even one person who exercises dominion over the household is rather unsettling. It discounts situations where there are multiple couples and single persons staying in a large property, where they might have control over their rooms in the house. From a policy perspective, this might discourage multi-generational or shared living arrangements.

The case of VOD v VOC challenges the understanding that legal interest coupled with residence in a property makes it a couple’s matrimonial home. They must now also have a strong element of control/ dominion over the property. Therefore, be cautioned that the house you and your spouse are living in may not necessarily be your matrimonial home.

At the time of writing, Chloe Chua practices with OTP Law Corporation as a lawyer focusing on family law.

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(1) In this section, “matrimonial asset” means —
(a) any asset acquired before the marriage by one party or both parties to the marriage —
(i) ordinarily used or enjoyed by both parties or one or more of their children while the parties are residing together for shelter or transportation or for household, education, recreational, social or aesthetic purposes; or
(ii) which has been substantially improved during the marriage by the other party or by both parties to the marriage; and
(b) any other asset of any nature acquired during the marriage by one party or both parties to the marriage,
but does not include any asset (not being a matrimonial home) that has been acquired by one party at any time by gift or inheritance and that has not been substantially improved during the marriage by the other party or by both parties to the marriage.