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Explainer: How children above the age of 21 can sue their parents for educational costs

SINGAPORE — Last month, a judge ordered a father to pay part of his 22-year-old son’s education overseas. The ruling has cast the spotlight on a little-known law that allows children above the age of 21 to sue their parents for education-related expenses.

TODAY takes a closer look at a case of a father who has to pay part of his son’s education overseas to see if it has wider implications for other adult children who might wish to sue their parents.

TODAY takes a closer look at a case of a father who has to pay part of his son’s education overseas to see if it has wider implications for other adult children who might wish to sue their parents.

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SINGAPORE — Last month, a judge ordered a father to pay part of his 22-year-old son’s education overseas. The ruling has cast the spotlight on a little-known law that allows children above the age of 21 to sue their parents for education-related expenses.

TODAY takes a closer look at the case, with the help of several lawyers, to see if it has wider implications for other adult children who might wish to sue their parents.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE CASE?

A Family Court judge ordered the father to pay 60 per cent of his son’s study expenses in Canada. The young man’s parents divorced when he was eight years old. The father, a businessman, has remarried and has two sons from that marriage.

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The son studied in a polytechnic but his results were not good enough to earn him a place in local universities, so he looked abroad and got into Columbia College in Vancouver. Although the father had earlier agreed to pay for his son’s education, he argued that the young man simply wanted to go abroad to “escape” Singapore and objected to paying for his education.

However, District Judge Jinny Tan ruled that he was obliged to pay a share of the young man’s educational expenses under Singapore law. The reasons included the fact that the son genuinely wished to make himself more employable through his studies, and the father’s capacity to pay.

The father is appealing against the ruling.

WHAT IS THIS LAW?

Responding to queries from TODAY on Thursday (Aug 29), lawyer Genesis Shen of Templars Law LLC said the relevant law in this case was Section 69 of the Women’s Charter, which includes two provisions governing the maintenance of a child.

Section 69(2) empowers the court to order a parent to pay certain sums of money for their children’s needs at any time.

This is unlike Section 127, where the court makes maintenance orders that are usually obtained as part of divorce proceedings, Mr Shen said.

IN WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES CAN GROWN CHILDREN SUE THEIR PARENTS?

Under Section 69(2), the applicant has to show that the parent had “neglected or refused to provide reasonable maintenance”. This means that the parent needs to have failed — deliberately or otherwise — to provide the sum of money required for the child’s needs.

For children above the age of 21, lawyer Michelle Woodworth of Quahe Woo and Palmer LLC noted that under Section 69(5), they can seek a court order for their parents to provide maintenance if they meet any of the following requirements:

  • They suffer from any mental or physical disabilities

  • They are or will be serving National Service full-time

  • They are or will be receiving further instruction at an educational establishment or undergoing vocational training while not gainfully employed

  • Any other special circumstances which justify the need to make the order

Ms Woodworth said that this part of the Women’s Charter is largely unknown by the public.

“The common misconception is that parents do not need to provide maintenance when a child turns 21, but that is not always the case under this section of the Women’s Charter,” she said.

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES A PARENT WILL BE ORDERED TO PAY UP?

When it comes to making a decision in such a case, the court will consider any relevant material, so the success of the application would depend on the facts of each individual case, Mr Shen said.

He added that in this case, several factors influenced the court's decision, such as whether the applicant’s needs were genuine. The judge found that they were.

Ms Woodworth also pointed out that Section 69(4) specifies the consideration of “the manner in which he was being, and in which the parties to the marriage expected him to be, educated or trained” as among the factors the court can weigh up in reaching its judgment.

District Judge Tan found that the son “genuinely wanted to improve his employability in the workforce” as he did not receive a good grade in polytechnic and had also applied to local universities but had not been accepted.

Mr Shen also said that the father’s initial in-principle agreement to pay for the son’s overseas education when the son had first spoken to him about it was another relevant consideration.

The court may also consider the financial resources of both the father and the mother as well as their physical abilities, Ms Woodworth said.

WILL THIS DECISION AFFECT FUTURE CASES?

Lawyer Amolat Singh of Amolat and Partners said that with the father appealing against the decision, the appeal court's ruling could well be legally significant.

“We do not know which way the High Court may decide on appeal. It may confirm or overrule the present decision,” he said.

Mr Shen agreed, adding that the Family Court judgment itself would not set a significant precedent in family law. Rulings in the Family Court do not have the same binding effect on other cases as those in the High Court or the Court of Appeal.

Mr Shen said that even before this case, children above the age of 21 had legal recourse to make a court application against their own parents for the costs of an overseas education. However, “whether or not they actually succeed will depend on the facts of the case”, he said.

Related topics

fund education poly graduate sue law parent child family

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