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Estate planning – preventing the splitting of heirs and family fights

June 14, 2017
estate planning

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The press statement by Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling admonishing their brother – Lee Hsien Loong (LHL), current Prime Minister of Singapore – in relation to Lee Kuan Yew’s express wish in his Will and/or Codicil to have his home at No. 38 Oxley Road demolished and the subsequent rebuttal by LHL, has the country on the edge of its seat.

Among the rich, it is not uncommon for a deceased person’s family members to fight over his or her assets and property. A recent article in the Straits Times dated 19 April 2017 outlined seven famous family feuds over, among other things, legal tussles over the deceased’s property or properties.

Why should a normal person worry about estate planning, though? If we are not rich, is it necessary for us to do a Will? Can’t we rely on the rules of distribution under the Inheritance Succession Act (Chapter 46) (the Act)? Why is it important to sort out the intricacies of estate planning to circumvent a property inheritance fight?

The law of intestacy and what it means for you

The Act sets out how all the assets of a deceased person should be distributed if he or she dies without a Will. Section 7 of the Act lists nine “rules” of distribution. We cannot go through every permutation here, but generally, distribution will be made in the following priority:

  •         Spouse, children, grandchildren (and descendants)
  •         Parents
  •         Brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces
  •         Grandparents
  •         Uncles and aunts

Some examples and permutations:

SpouseChild or ChildrenParent(s)Sibling(s)Who gets the assets
XXSpouse 100%
XSpouse 50%

Parent(s) 50%

(E.g. 4 Children)
Spouse 50%

Children 50% in equal shares.

E.g. 50% divided by 4 = 12.5% each

(E.g. 4 stepchildren)
Spouse 50%

Parent(s) 50%

Note: If the children were not adopted by you, they are not considered “legitimate” children for purposes of the Act and will not inherit anything.
XXParent(s) 100%
(if both are alive, then 50% each)
X
(Divorced or widowed)
If the child was born to you when you were married to a person of the opposite sex, then the child will get 100% or if more than one child, 100% in equal shares
X
(Single, never married)

(Born out of wedlock)
If the child was born out of wedlock, he or she is not considered a “legitimate” child for purposes of the Act and will not inherit anything. All your assets will be distributed to your parents and if they are no longer alive, to your siblings.

Parent(s) 100%

Sibling(s) 100%, in equal shares if more than one sibling
X
(Single, never married)

(Adopted child)
If the child is an adopted child, he or she is recognised as a “legitimate” child for purposes of the Act.

Adopted child 100%

Estate planning and doing up a Will

Having a Will drawn up is generally encouraged as it only costs a few hundred dollars to do a straightforward Will. This is because when you pass on, and if your family needs access to your assets, obtaining a Grant of Probate (where you have a Will) is faster than if one applies for Letters of Administration (when you die without a Will). For example, your family will not be able to access any bank accounts or dispose of your property in your sole name without a Grant of Probate or Letter of Administration.

Who needs a Will?

For non-Muslims, you may not need a Will if:

  • You are happy with the rules of distribution under the Inheritance Succession Act (Chapter 46) (the Act).  If you wish to distribute your assets in a manner which is different from the fixed rules under the Act, then you should get a Will done. If it is a simple Will, it is generally not expensive – around a few hundred dollars.
  • Your only asset is a property, you have registered the property as joint tenants together with your spouse or partner, and are happy for the property to go to him or her.

A person who should execute a Will is:

  • A person who is married but does not wish to distribute his or her assets according to the intestacy rules
  • A single person who wants to provide for his or her partner
  • A single person who wants to provide for his or her child who was not born during a marriage between that person and another person of the opposite sex

For Muslims

For Muslims, different rules apply to you. The Administration of Muslim Law Act sets out the Muslim intestate law, faraid, and this is administered by the Syariah Court. Generally speaking, even if you do execute a Will, you cannot will away more than one third of your estate after certain fixed deductions. The rest of your assets are distributed according to faraid.

What is a Codicil?

A codicil is a short document to make amendments to your signed Will.  According to two of his children, the late Lee Kuan Yew drafted and executed his own Codicil (see press stated dated 14 June 2017 of Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling).  In the old days prior to the advent of computers, it may have been more cost effective to do a Codicil to make amendments to some parts of the Will or else a new Will incorporating the changes would have had to be rewritten in long hand or re-typed just to make a small change.

Today, Codicils are not common or necessary because if you want to make an amendment to your Will, all you need to do is to amend it on a soft copy of the Will, print it out and execute it as a new Will.  If the amendments are very minor and you know how to execute a Will properly, you may not even need to engage a lawyer to do the new Will.

Our last words

It is imperative and important for each of us to set out our last wishes clearly in a Will, especially in the area of estate planning. As a parent, spouse, child or sibling, the last thing we wish upon our loved ones is to subject them to acrimony and legal tussles that is often unnecessary had we done our homework. After all, isn’t it our responsibility and moral obligation to protect the ones we love, even from beyond the grave?

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