Favouritism in estate wills: do they still exist?

6 min read

Earlier in February, there was a social media post about an elder daughter whose parents passed away, leaving behind their 4-room HDB flat to her two younger brothers – with no shares to her younger sister and her. Unlike her siblings, the girl is already married and has her own flat.

The argument is that while she has to pay her own HDB loan till she’s 50+ years old, her two brothers have an easier way out, as they can sell the inherited flat and buy a new one without the burden of a long-term loan – bringing to light the possibility of favouritism.

While netizens argued that the house belonged to her parents and they can do whatever they want with it, some empathised with the daughters because these final parental acts can result in resentment (and maybe ugly court cases) among siblings. Others felt that it wasn’t really favouritism, but more to give the less financially capable siblings a better headstart, regardless of gender.

Senior elderly couple estate will financial planning agent

99.co brought this scenario to Johann Tay from Will & Legacy Pte. Ltd. to gain more insights. As an estate planner for 10 years now, Johann has been assisting people to plan their last wishes and ensuring their legacies are left intact, long after they’re no longer around.

1. Have you seen similar situations of favouritism and do you think this is an ongoing trend?

Johann: I have seen it occasionally, but in reality, I do not experience this frequently. In fact, the rationale for any biased distribution nowadays is much more pragmatic, for example, based on which child took care of them in their elder years, a dislike of certain sons/daughters-in-law, a particular child needing more financial assistance than say, some more successful children.

Some cultural traditions may be at play, but I think a strong influence on elderly parents is their peers. They “hear” a lot from their kopi/exercise buddies.

Also, I think it will likely occur less over the generations, due to the less traditional outlook within the family.

2. Can you share cases (and reasons) why parents give an unequal share of the property to children?

Johann: Sure. One of the more common circumstances is when a majority of the children are married with their own homes, and there is one sole child left living with them. Concerned that the child may never marry, they want to ensure a roof for that child. Perhaps, that child, likely given the burden of care for the parents, is also a consideration. So they decide that the property would be left to that child, with more liquid assets being divided equally.

Of course, there’s also the concern of certain children requiring financial assistance more than others – where some children are well paid, and some are less well off.

The same can be said for the size of the family. The elderly parents – knowing 1 of their children has 4 children, versus another who has only 1 child – decided to leave their older HDB flat to the one with a big family because the property has more space. This gives that child some options in moving to the bigger flat.

Another instance happened when one child studied overseas and the parents spent quite a lot on college education, rent, maintenance etc. Their other child studied in the local university here. The parents hadn’t spent nearly as much on that child as the sibling who studied abroad. So, in efforts to “balance” out the fairness, they left the property to the sibling who studied locally.

One example I can think of as well is leaving the property to the grandchildren rather than the children themselves. The patriarch had a poor relationship with his daughter-in-law, so by extension, his son. The fear of an in-law’s influence on their children was enough to will his property to his grandchildren, held on by a corporate trustee until the child reaches adulthood.

3. Under such circumstances, have you faced any difficulties when drafting or executing these wills?

Johann: I usually never meet the beneficiaries of my clients, so I don’t have much in that area to contribute. However, whenever a client has the intention to distribute his estate unequally, I will always try to find out the rationale, as it may be pragmatic, sometimes emotional, but it definitely helps guide my advice to them.

I will also tell them what the consequences might be if a child realised he/she may receive less than a sibling- from the possible contest, but also a possible breakdown of a sibling relationship. Sometimes, in the emotions of a moment, they may decide to give more to a child, but upon realising some of the possible ramifications on their children’s relationships, they change course. Most parents would rather preserve sibling unity above all else.

Senior elderly couple outdoors with grandchildren

4. When it comes to disputes, how would you advise children left out of the will, or are unhappy with their share, to go about contesting the will?

Johann: In some cases, I was quite surprised as some parents do inform their children of their intentions early, ESPECIALLY when it was unequal.

They may not have expected it to cause such distress to their child. Of course, contests are likely only done after the parent is gone.

Contesting the Will is not an easy matter. The Will either has to be outrightly invalid – say, due to improper witnessing for example, or it has to be proven that the testator (parent in this case) was under the influence or unsound mind. This is a very costly affair.

Better grounds for the contest could be if say, a daughter was a primary caregiver, and the bills and maintenance were paid by her, and if her parent left nothing to her, she might have grounds to claim what she had spent on the parents in their elder years.

5. With property ownership in Singapore being one of the highest in the world (88% of households in Singapore are owner-occupied as of 2020), how big (rough percentage maybe) would “property” feature among the various asset classes written in wills today?

Johann: Oh wow, hard to say, for some elderly clients, the HDB flat could be almost the only thing they have left (i.e. 90%). For others, it’s a drop in the ocean.

Are you preparing your estate will and faced with a similar dilemma? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Facebook post.

If you found this article helpful, check out Residuary Property: What happens when a home is left out of a will? and Estate Planning: What you need to know to preserve your assets.

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