With Shanghai’s rising property values, local seniors are learning the importance of last wills and testaments

By Du Qiongfang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/4/9 19:33:40

Grave consequences

A last will and testament (also referred to simply as a will), used to be superstitiously regarded among Chinese people as an ominous action that could lead to misfortune. But during the recent Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day), wills became a hot topic among property-owning locals in Shanghai. Although making a will is a common practice in Western countries, the necessity of drawing up a will for ordinary families in China has only just begun. The rapid growth of China's economy along with skyrocketing property values here have turned millions of ordinary residents into overnight millionaires and multimillionaires. According to the Hurun Wealth Report released in September of 2017, one in every 940 Chinese mainlanders is now a multimillionaire; one in every 14,000 is a billionaire.

A resident fills out a reservation card at the China Will Registration Center. Photos: Courtesy of the China Will Registration Center and Yang Hui/GT

Being of sound mind and body

As one of life's most valuable and precious physical assets, property has always been the focus of family disputes worldwide when discussing legacy distribution. According to recent statistics from the China Will Registration Center, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization established in 2013 to provide free consultancy services about wills to local senior citizens, 99.69 percent of all wills registered at the center involve property.

The first white paper released by the center in March also showed that 47 percent of the 82,177 wills currently stored at the center were made by parents of only-child families. Some may wonder why elderly citizens - most who have only one child under China's former single-child policy - need to make a will for property and assets that will be automatically inherited by their only offspring.

One of the reasons, according to the center, is to prevent legacy properties from being usurped by greedy spouses or in-laws. New statistics from China's Ministry of Civil Affairs revealed that civil affairs bureaus across the nation dealt with 4 million divorce cases in 2016, an 8 percent increase from 2015. In 2016, the divorce rate was three out of ever 1,000 couples, rising for seven consecutive years since 2009.

According to China's national marriage law, after an elderly parent passes away, unless a will was drawn up in advance, all property registered under their name will be jointly inherited by both their child and his/her spouse. If the couple gets divorced later, the divorced spouse is entitled to half of that property. This undesirable loophole has triggered a new demand for wills clearly stating that property will be exclusively inherited only by a parent's offspring, and that their spouse is expressly excluded from sharing in the inheritance.

Residents consulting with the China Will Registration Center

Serious misunderstandings

According to Huang Haibo, director of the Shanghai branch of the China Will Registration Center, their Tianjin office once handled a case in which an elderly couple wanted to make a will but was dissuaded by their daughter, who believed wills were ominous.

After her parents passed away, they left three apartments to their daughter. However, her husband later had an affair and then divorced her, taking with him 10 million yuan ($1.59 million) worth of her parents' property. There was nothing she could legally do about it due to her parents' failure to sign a will.

Another senior couple, aged 74 and 77 respectively, making a reservation at the Shanghai branch of the China Will Registration Center, told the Global Times that they wanted to leave their property to their younger daughter's son. Even though the couple has two daughters, they are not concerned about disputes between the two daughters, but rather their younger daughter's unstable marriage status.

"We only have one apartment. Our elder daughter is in the US and she modestly declined the inheritance of this property. Her son is studying in the US and will graduate from university this year. But our younger daughter's work and marriage [here in China] are unstable, so we want to leave our apartment to her son. Because our younger daughter's current husband is her second husband, and the man has his own child with his ex-wife," the elderly wife explained to the Global Times.

"The point is that my wife fell down three times recently so we are afraid of some unexpected misfortune. We decided to make arrangements for a will as soon as possible. Our friend, who was much healthier than us, suddenly passed away three months ago from a heart attack," her elderly husband said.

"There are three major misunderstandings in Chinese society about wills. The first is that people think only-child parents do not need to make a will; the second is that people think they are too young to make a will; the third is that people whose family relationship is currently harmonious feel they don't need to make a will," Huang said.

"But," he explained, "even in harmonious families, money will always test human nature. So we suggest to our clients not to tell their children the details of their wills to avoid disputes among siblings. They should only tell their children that they have made a will and urge them to be filial [during the reading of the will]," Huang said.

Brochures for the will center service

Confusing laws

According to China's Law of Succession, if (for example) a 60-year-old father dies without a will, his immediate heirs include his wife, his child and any living elderly parents (the child's grandparents).

When those grandparents eventually die, part of any inherited properties they obtained from their dead son will be inherited by his brothers and sisters (if any). If the deceased's child desires the property, every uncle and aunt must sign an agreement giving up their rights to the property. Needless to say, this would most likely trigger disputes between each relative.

A 58-year-old man surnamed Ji making a reservation for the will service at the center told the Global Times that he felt an urgent need to make a will after a friend his age unexpectedly died from a cerebral hemorrhage. His friend's elderly parents are still in good health and have several children, which will possibly result in property inheritance complications with their uncles and aunts.

"Our family situations are similar. I too have brothers and sisters and my parents are still alive. If something unexpected happened to me, it would be very troublesome for my child to inherit my two apartments. Unless I make a will for him, he will have to beg or pay off his uncles and aunts and grandparents to sign a document giving up their rights to inherit my property," Ji told the Global Times.

According to Huang, wills made by young adults can also serve as a protection for their own properties. The Shanghai branch once handled a case in which a 32-year-old woman brought her elderly mother to the center to make a will for the mother's five properties. The daughter, who has a 2-year-old child, divorced her ex-husband after he cheated on her and was concerned that he would have the right to share in her inheritance after her mother passes away.

The center advised the woman to make a separate will for herself so that if she unexpectedly dies, her properties will be inherited by her elderly mother and child rather than her ex-husband. Her elderly mother's five properties would also be inherited by her daughter, but not until the girl turns 18. Without a will, the unfaithful ex-husband would still have a right to all those properties.

"With a will, that woman can prevent her properties from going to her ex-husband by designating a 'specialized institution' to hold the properties [for the next 16 years] until her daughter becomes an adult," Huang explained to the Global Times.

Fifth anniversary of the establishment of the will center on March 21

Aging society

Prior to the establishment of the China Will Registration Center, some Chinese citizens simply wrote wills by themselves under the witness of a relative or friend, or at a notary office. However, according to Huang, over 60 percent of all self-written wills are ruled invalid by local courts because they were "irregularly written" according to Chinese laws.

The services provided by the China Will Registration Center help citizens draft legally recognized wills with normative legal wording that can not be easily refuted. The center's work has been praised by courts in Beijing for greatly speeding up local trials over disputed inheritances and, thus, saving the courts time, money and resources.

"An [inheritance] lawsuit can last years and cost tens of thousands of yuan. But with a valid will, a court can make a very easy decision strictly according to the document," Huang said.

With two private rooms occupying a total area of less than 20 square meters and a public space of around 100 square meters, the Shanghai branch of the China Will Registration Center located in a residential compound on Honggu Road in Changning district first opened in November of 2017.

Since then, they have received over 4,000 reservations for their will service, though only 500 residents have made and stored their wills at the center. Other on-site will registration procedures include fingerprint scanning, videos, electronic scanning, file archiving, on-site witnessing and private-room registration to ensure the authenticity of the will.

It can take hours for an applicant to finish the entire procedure in addition to the six-month waiting period once a reservation for the service has been filed. The office can handle only 10 clients per day. Most of their clients are in their 70s, and the oldest was aged 96.

For the convenience of local senior residents, in March the center set up a new reservation office on Zhongshan Road South in Huangpu district. Jointly initiated by the China Ageing Development Foundation and the Beijing Sunny Senior Health Foundation in 2013, the China Will Registration Center public welfare project has also set up branches in other cities including Guangzhou, Tianjin, Nanjing, Chongqing and Nanning.

To date, over 82,000 elderly people across China have registered with the center. This number is expected to grow along with China's aging society and ever-rising senior population.

Residents and Huang Haibo (middle), director of the Shanghai branch, pose for the anniversary.


Senior citizens at the center



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