The importance of a proper, ironclad handover
It's not what you leave behind but how it will be managed and distributed

The importance of good estate management is often underrated. Most people want to leave their loved ones a substantial financial legacy when they pass away but they often neglect one key aspect: how this legacy is managed and distributed when they are gone.

An estate can easily run into problems. It is not uncommon for the beneficiaries of a will to dispute how assets are distributed, especially if the estate is a large one.

Some examples in Asia are the three-year court battle over the will of billionaire Nina Wang and the 2012 dispute over the assets of late Hong Koon tycoon William Mong Man-Wai.

In the first case, Ms Wang's immediate family contested their exclusion from the will; in the second case, beneficiaries of the will contested the use to which the funds were put. The cost of the legal action was such that some media articles quipped that the lawyers were benefiting at least as much as the families.

Family tussles aside, estate management becomes even more complex if the deceased owns several properties across different jurisdictions.

Many high-profile inheritance disputes arise because family leaders delayed making a will for too long or did not make a will at all.

When someone passes away without a will, or if the will is invalid or cannot be located, the person is considered as having died intestate. His or her assets are immediately frozen until an administrator of the estate, usually the deceased person's next-of-kin, is authorized by the court. The administrator may also be a creditor of the estate.

Under the intestacy law in Singapore, many problems can emerge regarding beneficiaries. Firstly, only certain people will be able to inherit. Spouse and children take priority, meaning that most other beneficiaries, including elderly parents, are excluded from the estate if the deceased leaves a spouse and/or legitimate children behind. Step-children and illegitimate children are excluded, and non-relatives have no chance to inherit at all.

Secondly, the wrong people might gain access to the estate. A separated spouse who is not yet divorced is automatically entitled to half the estate, and an ex-spouse might be named guardian of surviving children. In a worse scenario where a beneficiary is bankrupt, the estate might be given to his or her creditor.

Finally, intestacy law does not provide for special arrangements such as holding assets in trust. Therefore, even if a beneficiary is financially imprudent or immature, the estate will be distributed to him or her as soon as the administrative formalities are complete.

Some people may prefer to name a relative or a friend as an executor to carry out the will, either because they believe that the person is trustworthy or because they feel that engaging a professional executor is too costly.

However, this is a risky move. The appointed executor may be unable to act for health reasons. For example, a spouse appointed as an executor may be too traumatized by grief to handle the burden of estate management. A spouse or child who is the citizen of another country may also be subject to that country's inheritance laws and thereby be unable to execute the will.

There might also be problems with the will itself. A non-professional executor may not be able to ensure the will's safety. The testator's decisions may even be influenced by knowing that their spouse or relative is executing the will, resulting in constraints on terms such as who can be named beneficiaries.

In the case of a sizeable or disorganized estate with assets located across several different countries, a non-professional may not have the skills or resources to handle cross-jurisdiction complexities.
Cross-jurisdiction challenges
When someone in Singapore wills a house in China or Europe to his or her spouse, or bequeaths shares in a private company established in the Cayman Islands to their grandchildren, how can we verify that these assets exist in the first place? And how can we verify that the assets actually belonged to the deceased?

Determining the existence and ownership of overseas assets can be costly and time-consuming. On top of this, the will must be authenticated in each of the countries where the deceased had assets, before ownership of those assets can be transferred to beneficiaries.

Inheritance laws also differ between countries. In Singapore, for example, there is no estate duty, but some other countries - including France, Germany and the US - still impose inheritance or estate taxes which are applicable to the assets in those countries.

For high net worth individuals, the percentage levied can be very significant, requiring estate tax planning.

Overall, the complications involved with assets located across several countries, especially with a large estate, are such that seeking a professional executor may be advisable.

An executor has many duties: he or she must be able to identify and value all assets in the estate, judge among various claims on the assets and be responsible for the paperwork - drawing up accounts and filing tax returns among other tasks - for the estate.

All these responsibilities require considerable expertise. In choosing an executor, one should look out for:
  • Experience in managing assets, working with financial institutions and handling legal matters
  • Familiarity with tax matters, especially when the estate includes assets in different countries
  • An ability to communicate with government agencies
  • Objectivity when it comes to dealing with relatives and other beneficiaries, particularly if they are likely to contest the will
The executor should also have the capacity to manage the estate, no matter the condition or location of the assets. For example, the executor should be capable of assuming directorship of any company in the estate, so as to safeguard all assets.

All in, proper estate management can make a big difference to the legacy that a person leaves his or her loved ones - it should not be left to chance.

Pass it on: Proper estate management can make a big difference to the legacy that a person leaves his or her loved ones - it should not be left to chance
This article was contributed by Bob Yap, Head of Advisory at KPMG in Singapore. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG in Singapore.
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