Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Do your family a favour - make a will

Tue, Jun 15, 2010
The Straits Times
by Lorna Tan

Death is a morbid subject, which may explain why many people have not made their wills.

Another reason is the belief that only the rich need to have wills. Why bother when you have little savings or assets? The little you leave behind after you die can be distributed easily among those you have left behind.

That was what I had always thought too, till the aunt of my friend Grace died six years ago.

Grace's father had two brothers and two sisters, and the dead aunt was her father's younger sister.

She was 57 when she had a heart attack and died in her sleep. She was a spinster and had spent most of her life looking after her sister's sons, and when they got married, their children.

Whatever savings she had came mainly from a seamstress job she held during her younger days and gifts of money from family members.

When she died, Grace volunteered to oversee the administration of her estate.

By worldly standards, it wasn't much to boast about. At the time of her death, the aunt was living in her nephew's home. She had no assets other than $18,000 in a bank account.

Grace obtained an application form for the administration of the estate of a deceased person from the Public Trustee's Office. The form has a list of beneficiaries who may make a claim to a dead person's estate.

Intestacy rules state that since her aunt was single and her aunt's parents had died, her estate of $18,000 would be shared equally among her three brothers and sister who were still alive.

If her siblings were dead, it would be shared among their children.

Along with the completed application form, certain documents were also needed by the Public Trustee's Office before it gave its approval to the bank to release the $18,000.

These were her aunt's death and birth certificates. As Grace's grandparents were dead, she had to submit their marriage certificate and respective death certificates as well. In addition, she had to get the birth certificates and identity cards of her aunt's siblings.

Grace asked for the documents from her father and his siblings. That was when she hit a few snags.

Firstly, her grandparents had died so long ago that no one knew where their marriage or death certificates were kept. So she had to declare those certificates as 'not available' in her submission.

Secondly, her elder aunt had lost her birth certificate. The Public Trustee's Office told Grace that in that case, her aunt needed to make a statutory declaration in front of a lawyer to prove that she was indeed a natural sibling of the deceased.

The third snag had to do with Grace's elder uncle's birth certificate. The name of his mother as stated in his birth certificate did not tally with that in his three siblings'.

It was likely to be a human error because such certificates were hand-written in the 1930s. So her uncle also had to make a statutory declaration that he was indeed a natural sibling of the deceased.

A family meeting was held to discuss the distribution. Grace's aunt was not keen to make a statutory declaration over her missing birth certificate as she was not physically mobile.

She said she would give the share due to her to her younger brother, who is Grace's father.

It took nearly four months from Grace's initial submission to the Public Trustee's Office before her father and his two brothers received a cheque each, totalling $18,000.

The sum here may be small, but the episode illustrates how complex the process of inheritance can be if there is no will. I dread to think of the consequences if Grace's family had not been as cohesive.

If there had been a will, it would have been clear who would get her aunt's money. The process of distributing her estate would have been faster and more straightforward.

Money is often the root of many troubles splitting up families and causing unhappiness. So, do spend some time reflecting how your loved ones will be left to settle your financial matters when you're gone. Do them a favour: If you do not have a will, make one now.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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