kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2005, 12:00am

Alice was devastated when her partner died suddenly. They had been together for 15 years in Hong Kong but somehow never got around to marriage. Emotionally wrecked, matters got even worse when she discovered the man she had loved had many years earlier made a will leaving everything to his adult children in Australia.

Not only was she alone, she was penniless and homeless. Their money was in his bank account. The house was in his name. Legally, everything was going to grown-up children of a marriage that ended 20 years ago.

'This is not an uncommon situation,' says Janet Hunt, a director of SAR International, which over the past eight years has completed about 3,000 wills for Hong Kong residents. She is a certified, professional will writer. 'I estimate that only about 10 per cent of people in Hong Kong have proper legal wills,' she says.

The desperate situation in which Alice (not her real name) found herself is easily avoidable. Her long-term partner had no intention of causing her distress.

For years they had talked idly of making wills leaving everything to each other. They never got around to it. The will he made in 1975 was half forgotten until he died suddenly of a heart attack.

The legal morass of dying intestate (without a will) can be equally frustrating and overwhelming for married people who do not own all property jointly and who don't have separate bank accounts.

When Harry died suddenly of natural causes in his home last year, his wife Belle (not real names) was torpedoed financially as well as emotionally. They had separate bank accounts and no wills. Because he died at home, it took Belle eight months of wrestling with tortuous bureaucracy to get a death certificate, the first step needed to try to settle the estate. Her money was soon used up. She couldn't get his.

In the past year, I've had three friends die without proper wills. In all cases it caused enormous problems for the surviving partners, agony that could have been avoided simply. Making a will doesn't cost much ($2,000 with Janet Hunt) and is an investment any sane person should take.

Because of the tragic circumstances that confronted my three friends, my wife and I recently had our wills updated. Then we made copies that we gave to my children and to friends and relatives in Hong Kong and abroad. Janet Hunt advises people to leave one copy with their doctor, one with their spouse and one with a trusted friend.

Most wills are relatively simple documents. When a client pays $2,000 for her basic kit, there is a set of questions to answer. Do you own property abroad? Have you been married before? Any children from former relationships?

This preliminary round shows swiftly how easy or complicated the will writing process will be. Many people in Hong Kong like to leave a specific sum to domestic servants. Others earmark sums for charity. A will can handle almost any request.

Of course, people can make a will through any lawyer. But the hourly fees swiftly pile up and if there are legal complications after death, those fees can cut into inheritances meant for family.

Ms Hunt says that to ensure property in the United States goes swiftly through the complex American probate system, people with capital or houses there need to make a separate will.

'The system is a nightmare, designed for the benefit of US lawyers,' she said, adding that a comparatively simple probate procedure in America can take 18 months.

Ms Hunt says that, with a little help, most people can handle writing a will with ease. Once done, it gives a sense of relief.

I appended a legally notarised addition to my will saying that if my body was of any interest to either of our medical universities, they could have it. There was a request that if I was in a coma or vegetative state with little chance of survival, I did not want to be kept alive by artificial means. And I stated I wanted the simplest and least expensive cremation.

Some people go a lot further. There was one recent case in Hong Kong where an expatriate wrote detailed instructions for his own after-death party, listing the venue, the menu and what music he wanted played.

That may be going a bit far, but such instructions take a great load off loved ones.