Ask Melanie: Writing a will

Melanie Nutbeam, a certified financial planner based in Hong Kong, addresses common personal finance queries. Send your questions to

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 7:46am

How do you write a will?

A will aims to honour your final wishes. Those wishes usually cover to whom you pass your assets, who is responsible for ensuring this happens and how your remains will be dealt with.

The assets and liabilities covered by your will (estate assets) are those owned by you. Assets owned jointly, held in trusts or under life insurance policies that nominate beneficiaries are not part of your estate and so are not covered by your will.

A client provided in his will for half of his assets to go to two children from his first marriage and the rest to his wealthy second wife. His assets were all properties owned jointly with his wife. Joint asset laws provide for the properties to fall automatically to his wife's sole ownership on his death, leaving his sons disinherited. We rearranged his asset holdings.

Estate assets are dealt with when your will is deemed valid. This is the probate, or proving, process. The Hong Kong Probate Office must confirm it's your last will, properly drafted, in good condition and voluntarily signed by the person making it in the presence of two witnesses who are not beneficiaries.

If you have assets in other countries your Hong Kong will might also go through probate there before they can be dealt with. Proving a will from another country can be a longer process. If you have assets elsewhere, consider a separate will in that country for those assets.

The probate process will take least a year so it's practical to have a joint bank account so a spouse and/or children have money to live on.

If you die without a valid will your estate will be divided in accordance with Hong Kong's Intestates Estate Ordinance. A quick look at its provisions may convince you that your final wishes will not be honoured in that quarter.

Hong Kong has no inheritance tax. This lulls Hongkongers into a belief they don't need a will to manage this tax so few people here have a will. "People overlook that marriage, divorce, guardianship of children, creditor protection and business succession planning are all reasons for having a current and valid will," says Katie Graves, an estate planning expert at Withers.

Your will does not usually list all your assets as these change. Instead it states the percentage split of your estate among beneficiaries after carving out specific assets - for example your snuff bottle collection to a favourite niece or nephew.

Keep your will current and buy assets in a name that fits your final wishes. Update asset values. Tom, a collector of music memorabilia, says: "I'm stupidly apprehensive that some things are more valuable than they appear. It would be tragic if they ended up in a skip."

Several companies and law firms in Hong Kong specialise in will writing. Costs vary according to the complexity of your assets, where they are held, and where the beneficiaries are. Costs can be contained by providing a current statement of assets and liabilities and a clear idea of your wishes.

Your will can be registered with a law firm or will-writing company. A copy of your latest assets and liabilities statement, and your will, might be held with your financial adviser.

A detailed discussion with an expert will writer may flush out issues you haven't considered. Additional cost is worthwhile if your will is valid, benefits are optimised, and your final wishes are honoured.

The views presented are of a general nature. For specific advice, talk to a professional planner. See the column archive at