STRIFE AFTER DEATH
Drafting a last will and testament that leaves nothing to your relatives while beloved pets are the sole beneficiaries can cause untold family grief. Patsy Moy learns of some dead giveaways
ANYTHING RELATED TO death and dying is anathema to traditional-minded Chinese people, including drafting wills. And those Hongkongers who do make such preparations tend to leave their assets to family members. But with shifting social mores, a growing number are making bequeaths to pet causes - or beloved pets.
Jacqueline Lee Sook-mun, a senior manager of a recruitment firm, has gone the whole hog. The executive, who is single, is leaving all her assets to her pets - two Pomeranian dogs and a pair of red-eared slider aquatic turtles. Her parents are financially independent and her two younger brothers have their own families, so Lee decided they didn't need anything from her.
'Unlike people, my dogs and turtles can't make money or feed themselves when I am no longer around. They need to be taken care of more than anyone in my family,' says Lee.
Besides cash, her assets include a 200-sq ft flat in North Point.
Lee's family, who live overseas, haven't been informed about her will, but her pets aren't the most comfortably off animal legatees. According to Rockwills, a wills-drafting company, one Hong Kong woman now living in Britain has left a HK$6 million insurance policy to her nine cats.
The company says others have been known to make similar wills, although it often goes down badly with family members. Most animal lovers, however, devote just a fraction of the estate to their pets - enough to cover the creatures' needs as long as they live.
More people are also leaving cash or assets to charity, although the culture hasn't fully taken root in the city. In 2005, the Life Underwriters Association, Rockwills and the Hong Kong Council of Social Service collaborated in a campaign to encourage policy holders to nominate worthy causes as beneficiaries of their insurance schemes.
About 1,200 people, who between them are insured for HK$79 million, have designated a portion of payouts to charity. But there may be more who have done so since the number records only those who signed up for the programme.
The council's business director, Cliff Choi Kim-wah, says donors are now more conscious about how much of their funds will go directly to programmes they support rather than the charities' administrative costs. 'Donors usually come with a clear idea about specific groups of people they want to help and seek credible organisations with a good reputation,' Choi says.
Twenty-five organisations are signed on to the programme and all are ready to open their books to inspection. Children's charities generally appeal most to donors.
Most families support such bequeaths, but donors who foresee family bickering over their contributions typically keep quiet about their wills, Choi says.
Charities and beloved pets aside, family members may be left out of a will for a variety of reasons, heart-warming and otherwise. 'We came across a woman owning several buildings in Central who specified that her children should not get anything because she was so disgusted with them,' says Rockwills chief executive, Elsa Pau Yuen-ling. 'Others insist that nothing be left to spouses who cheated and ruined the marriage.'
Some parents' decisions are meant to encourage children to be self-reliant rather than have them turn into spendthrifts who squander the family fortune. This may best describe a client who brought along her two grown-up sons when drafting her will. Both stood behind her wish to donate all assets to charity.
'The sons told their mother that she'd given them the best gift in life - their names and a good education,' Pau recalls. 'They said the money should go to the needy. Their conversation was so touching.'
There are no statistics on the number of Hong Kong people who have wills drafted. While Rockwills has seen its business expand by about 50 per cent annually since it set up four years ago, Pau says informal surveys at her business seminars indicate only 3 per cent of people have prepared a will. The rate is only one-tenth of that in western nations such as Britain, she says.
Despite Chinese cultural abhorrence, solicitor Lau Kar-wah, who specialises in civil cases, says a will is crucial to minimise family disputes over money and possessions. Under a no-will situation, assets are usually shared by the spouse and children. But if people don't have families and die without indicating how their assets should be disposed of, it may all wind up in the government's coffers, Lau says. Such sums added up to HK$7.5 million in the 2004/05 financial year and HK$10 million in 2003/04. Relatives can still lay claim to cash and property of those who were single and childless, but priority is determined by the closeness of the blood tie.
'It's not uncommon to see courtroom dramas stirred up by children born out of wedlock who suddenly appear to stake claims on the assets. So, a well-written will can prevent all these unfortunate occurrences and unnecessary hassles,' Lau says.
To ensure that it's taken seriously, Lee had her will drafted by a law firm a couple of years ago. Since animals don't have legal standing to become beneficiaries, she had to set up a trust and appoint trustees to manage the assets on behalf of her pets. Lee appointed two friends as trustees, and any funds remaining after the animals die will go to animal welfare groups.
The trustee arrangement also applies to minors under the age of 18 and people who don't have the capacity to make decisions, such as the mentally challenged.
Although there are no rules on the format of a will or the qualifications of people drawing up the document, Lau suggests hiring a professional for greater peace of mind. People with legal knowledge can help avoid creating grey areas that may jeopardise the validity of the will.
'Some clients may wish to leave their assets to charities but spell the names of the organisations incorrectly; that may cause some legal dispute as some agencies have similar names,' Lau says.
'We need to remind our clients not to set out conditions for beneficiaries that are beyond their right or ability to fulfil.'
Terms that appear to be legally valid can be a headache for trustees if it is hard to prove that the beneficiaries have met specified conditions for receiving the inheritance. One of Pau's clients, for instance, had made it a condition that his children burn incense at his gravestone every year before they were entitled to a regular payment. 'In that case, the children may need to take a photo at the cemetery to show the trustees that they have fulfilled the requirement,' Pau says.
'Of course, beneficiaries also have the right to reject the inheritance.'