The Straits Times is launching a law series that examines legal issues of interest against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic landscape, such as the making of wills and estate planning. The series of planned fortnightly articles by Senior Law Correspondent K.C. Vijayan is meant to inform, educate and enhance awareness. Future topics include perspectives on family law, legal technologies and contracts disrupted by Covid-19.
Madam Jamaliah Jamaludin drew up her will earlier this year as she was "not getting any younger" and life, she said, was fragile.
The 60-year-old mother of two adult daughters, who also has five siblings, said her will was done to "ensure each family member's interests are taken care of under Islamic law", crediting her lawyer Mohammed Shakirin for the work.
Not everyone has the foresight to get their affairs in order early. Wills service provider PreceptsGroup International had a client, a 50-year-old end-stage cancer patient, who made his will just three days before he died last month.
His family sourced the company to prepare the document, which he signed in a hospital bed with an attending doctor as one of the two witnesses required.
"These things happen and it's a relief to all concerned, especially the family members," said the group's chief executive, Mr Lee Chiwi.
Mr Lee, whose company is an estate and succession planning service provider, said the current pandemic has spurred interest in these areas. He added that the firm's webinar last month on the subject drew nearly 100 participants, compared with about half the number at its seminars in pre-Covid-19 days.
Lawyers contacted said the economic slowdown owing to Covid-19 has also given people time to prioritise matters they had put off, such as estate planning. "I am seeing more queries from individuals about wills and powers of attorney," said lawyer Dhamendra Yadav.
He has noticed two main groups: Young or mid-career professionals seeking powers of attorney to make decisions on behalf of their aged parents; and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) couples who want to make sure their partners are taken care of, and can handle their estate.
A will signed by the testator and witnessed by two people who are not beneficiaries is a formal document that the court recognises, and it respects the wishes therein, said lawyer Peter Ong Lip Cheng.
He said if a person dies intestate, without a will, the assets left are duly listed and distributed to next-of-kin after the administrator is appointed by the court to administer the estate.
"In a will, a testator may bequeath his assets to whom he wishes to the exclusion of others considered close to him, and it is respected," he said. "I have done wills, for example, where the testator left her assets to a charity, and in another case, not to his wife, but someone else."
WillCraft founder Alvin T'ng said the increased number of people making wills is driven generally by increased financial literacy among Singaporeans, adding it is now cheaper and more convenient than before.
I.R.B. Law managing partner Mohammed Baiross noted that wills can be done with a lawyer, starting from about $150, or through a "form-filling exercise" on a service-provider portal for less than $90.
"Prices vary but there cannot be a one-size-fits-all in terms of choice and the client decides what is good for him. Many are comfortable with human interface encounters where concerns are addressed and costs are billed based on the complexity of the will," he said.
While there is no immediate data on the number of wills made overall, figures from the Wills Registry managed by Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) show a rise between January, when 250 wills were registered, and April, which had 307. There were 3,911 wills registered last year, up from 3,535 five years ago.
The registry, which SAL took over from the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) last month, holds details of the will and not the will itself, said SAL. It is meant to provide beneficiaries and next-of-kin with information about a person's will, such as who drew up the will and where it is held. It is not mandatory to register one's will.
Separately, the Legal Aid Bureau received slightly more than 90 applications for the drafting of wills per year, on average, from 2017 to last year, said a MinLaw spokesman.
The Bureau provides legal assistance, such as drafting of wills for people who pass a means test.
Mr Mohammed Baiross, whose general legal practice also has expertise in Syariah law in addition to other areas, said mindset is the key to draw more people to effective estate planning. "The focus should be on who the testator intends to benefit and not the inventory of items that make up the estate."
HELP IN ESTATE PLANNING
Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran said it is prudent for adults at whatever age to consider end-of-life issues like wills.
"Rather than letting intestate succession laws operate as a default rule, through a testamentary instrument like wills we can express our wishes from equitable asset distribution to honouring unique relationships with different family members and friends, or charities, among others," he said.
Senior Counsel Vijayendran said appropriate bequests reflect "our personalities and passions. Consulting a lawyer helps you memorialise those wishes validly, clearly, precisely and uniquely so that it speaks after death".
The Law Society's Pro Bono Services' free Know The Law booklet has a section on estate planning and making a will. It can be found at www.lawsocprobono.org/Pages/know-the-law-booklet.aspx
Separately, details on Singapore Academy of Law's Wills Registry can be accessed at http://wills.sal.sg
More details on the Legal Aid Bureau and the means test in relation to legal assistance can be found at lab.mlaw.gov.sg
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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