More than 100 elderly people visited a will registration office in Beijing's Xicheng district yesterday a day after it opened, Chen Kai, co-founder of the Beijing Sunny Senior Health Foundation, said.
"We were so overwhelmed by the number of elderly people coming in for consultations and phone calls for inquiries that staff didn't have a lunch break until 2pm," Chen said.
The opening of the will registry, the first of its kind on the mainland, is part of a pilot programme jointly launched in Beijing by Chen's organisation and the government-backed China Ageing Development Foundation (CADF) to cater to the needs of the mainland's ageing population.
However, the topic of death remains such a taboo that it has prevented many elderly people from drafting wills before they die. The percentage of elderly people making wills is also much smaller in rural areas, which has led to an abrupt rise in the number of inheritance disputes as family wealth increases.
Nearly 60 per cent of mainland wills are invalid because they are often drafted without instructions from legal professionals, The Beijing News reported, quoting statistics from Beijing's Higher People's Court.
CADF deputy director Fu Shuangxi said the rising number of inheritance-related family feuds had become a major factor behind rising family tensions on the mainland.
"We're hoping that will registration will help families avoid family infighting and cultivate harmony," he said.
Under the pilot programme, people aged over 60 in Beijing can register their wills with the registry and get help from in-house lawyers to draft them, all free of charge.
Each registration will be recorded in both audio and video formats and all the recordings will be stored in a computer database. The registry has also teamed up with banks to store copies of wills in bank vaults under strict confidentiality.
Chen said that unlike people in many Western countries, mainlanders did not have a tradition of hiring a family lawyer to look after their wealth or wills, and a third-party registry would help avoid the family tension stemming from the negative perception of wills and cut the number of inheritance disputes.
He said they had also put in place a team of lawyers and a team of notary professionals to safeguard the trial programme and facilitate its expansion to other parts of the country.
However, Chen said they had yet to find a partner to provide psychiatric evaluations, a key step in ensuring the validity of a will.
He said the pilot programme was funded by public donations and government funds and would be promoted as a free programme for those over 60 elsewhere on the mainland.
"As more and more people subscribe to the idea of will registration, we might launch a commercially viable will registration programme for people under 60, particularly those wealthy people who want premium will services," he said.
"Then we can make money to provide new funds for free will registrations for the elderly."