Thirty years ago, China’s communist rulers began to allow the people of China the ability to save money. Not only did Chinese citizens jump on the chance to become financially wealthy, they now have the reputation of being the best “savers” in the world.
As the first full generation of people are aging, and their financial worth increasing, one of the important items many of them are ignoring is a will specifying where this wealth will go when they die.
This lack of estate planning has caused major problems with a large increase in court cases between families fighting over who gets what.
According to government statistics, only one percent of the more than 220 million senior citizens in China have drawn up wills. One of the major reasons no one is making wills stems from the cultural belief in China that if a person discusses their death, they are putting a curse on themselves. So death is rarely discussed.
The refusal to write a will spreads across all economic levels. Even people who are considered rich refuse to specify how those riches should be divided and the consequences of this refusal can be far-reaching.
For example, there was one case where a coal baron died without leaving a will. The dispute over his estate was fought between his wife, his mistress, and his six children.
The battle over the estate became so intense that his company stopped paying workers, forcing the local government to step in and try to negotiate a settlement between all the parties.
When examining the number of contested estate cases which are in the courts, 70 percent of them are due to a lack of will. In cases where there is a will but someone is challenging it, approximately 60 percent of those wills are found to be invalid.
In order to help put a stop to all this, the Chinese government has ordered there be free legal centers for citizens over 60 years of age to assist them in drawing up their wills. These centers appear to be working as many of them now have months-long waiting lists for appointments.
The process for a senior coming to a center is made as compassionately and respectfully as possible. The senior citizen will explain to an attorney exactly how they want their estate to be divided. The attorney will draw up a draft of those wishes. The senior is then examined by a psychiatrist who verifies that the person is of sound mind.
The next step is a video recording of the senior discussing their wishes in the presence of two independent witnesses. The last step is for the senior to take the final draft and copy it by hand.
In order to help convince seniors to have their wills written up, there are even Chinese television shows that highlight the issue of families fighting over deceased relatives’ estates.
These shows seem to be working as some seniors who have been asked why they are making their wills now explain they do not want their families fighting like the people on television do.
Trust & Estates Attorney Kerri Castellini commented, “For countries that allow flexibility in the distribution of assets at death, a comprehensive estate plan is helpful for ensuring that assets and wealth are passed on pursuant to a testator’s wishes.”