When there’s a will, the way is easier, as they say, and it’s certainly true in Hong Kong, where growing pools of wealth, longer life expectancies and increasingly convoluted family structures mean that making your wishes clear is essential—both to ensure the comfort and safety of loved ones when you’re no longer around and to prevent the headaches that can arise around estate-related battles.
One in every 13 Hongkongers (434,000 people) is a millionaire with assets of HK$10 million or more, a Citibank study revealed in April, while Hong Kong remains home to one of the highest billionaire populations in the entire world. However, more than 75 per cent of Hong Kong residents aged 55 years and above had made inadequate provisions for later life, a 2017 Baptist University study found. As a result, the city is a writhing nest of high-profile battles over wills and estates, with plenty of backstabbing and protracted legal cases over high-value estates as different parties bid to get a slice of the pie.
Most disputes between family members end in settlements out of court, but some choose to run the opposition (and their inheritance) into the ground with endless squabbling and bankrupt them with legal bills.
In Hong Kong, superstition around death once dissuaded people from making wills-some believe that making one is akin to putting a curse on yourself but recent decades (and especially the pandemic) have persuaded more people to think more seriously about their post-death wishes.
“Ten years ago, if you suggested to a Chinese client that they should prepare a will or even a prenup, you would probably get told off. Because people didn’t want to talk about death or divorce,” says lawyer Billy Ko, a partner on the family team at international law firm Wither’s. “Nowadays, with the second or third generation of rich families, I have a lot of clients coming to me for both.”
Alfred Ip, a founding partner at local law firm Hugill & Ip who specialises in assisting high-net-worth individuals in handling wealth-related issues, family law and dispute resolution, says, “No one likes to think about their death, but everyone should be pragmatic. A lot of people don’t think they need to make a will, but there’s an increasing need for clients to get advice in relation to dealing with human relationships: how to handle things when there’s a falling-out.” The smallest estate Ip’s company is currently dealing with is two siblings fighting over HK$5 million, but the biggest one is about HK$200 million.
There’s an increasing need for clients to get advice in relation to dealing with human relationships: how to handle things when there’s a falling-out
More than two years after his death, the descendants of Stanley Ho are still wrangling over the rumoured US$6 billion estate of the saurian casino magnate, who did not leave a will. His 17 children, whom he fathered with four “wives”, are fighting for control of his empire, with challenges to marital status and tussles over choice of accountants for the estate swirling overhead. In short, had the size of Ho’s estate and his wishes been made clear before his death, his family would have been saved a lot of hassle.
“Regardless of how much we are leaving behind, it’s a lifetime of hard work that we are passing on,” said politician and businessman Bernard Chan in a South China Morning Post op-ed in May in which he urged his peers to have plans in place. He points out that without a will or enduring power of attorney (a legal document in which a person names who they want to take care of their affairs should they become incapacitated or die) in place, some people get caught out by an inability to take care of their affairs.
In cases like this, it falls to a committee of representatives from the family who a court deems responsible for the deceased’s financial matters-and your petty feuds or family rifts won’t be taken into account. It’s not just money that needs to be accounted for: a deed of guardianship should be made to ensure any children under 18 are taken care of if they become orphaned.
But what about when secret lovers come out of the woodwork? Or it emerges that the deceased had children that nobody knew about? These scenarios can be tricky for both sides, but a secret lover or child has a legal case to contest a will—they just need to have a paper trail.
“People say as long as you don’t get married, it’s fine: you’re not obliged to provide any financial subsidy to the person. That’s mostly correct,” says Ko, most of whose clients are wealthy men in their late thirties. “With this exception: if you are financially dependent on the deceased at the time of death, then you can make an application to the court against the estate or financial provision.”
Ko cites a case currently going through the courts where the mistress of a deceased man is fighting to prove she is entitled to maintenance from his estate after having received financial support from him since the 1980s. “He had a stroke and fell into a coma, so his finances were managed by a committee. And subsequently, he passed away,” Ko says. “Being a mistress, it’s highly unlikely that she will be liked by the family. So that’s why all these arguments arise. With proper wealth planning, there would have been no need to spend eight years of time and also legal costs on this matter.”
Being a mistress, it’s highly unlikely that she will be liked by the family. So that’s why all these arguments arise
In an ongoing case, one of Ip’s clients is an adult child whose father lived alone after their mother died. After the father himself died, another woman turned up at the hospital, not only claiming she was his second wife, but brandishing a will drafted by a lawyer and signed by the testator saying everything was left to her. “The family had never met her, despite asking their father many times whether there was a friend, a lover, a wife, but the father refused to acknowledge any of this and even got angry about their questioning. Now, there’s a widow coming out of nowhere. The only way to resolve it sensibly is through mediation,” says Ip.
Ip advises against going to court in such instances, as the cases will be raked over in granular detail, which can be very embarrassing, especially for high-profile families who value privacy above all else.
Meanwhile, Ip also successfully represented a dependent in a same-sex relationship, who was cut off by her deceased spouse’s family members after the death, in a demonstration of how Hong Kong’s complicated stance on gay marriage can confound things further. “They changed the lock on the matrimonial home,” Ip says. “During the deceased’s lifetime, the family took a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. She fought that for four years, and she got around a third of her partner’s estate.”
In his 13 years of practice, Ko has seen it all: family members. claiming wills were forged, or that their dead relative was incapacitated when they signed their will. Cases like those can require calling in specialists to confirm that the signature was real, racking up costs. He suggests that one solution is to have a doctor present during the signing to prevent claims of forgery.
Ultimately, Ko says, it’s about people talking more frankly about death and what happens beyond. “It’s mostly about public awareness. We need to let people know that there are tools to protect your interests. And it’s not only just about the wealthy; it’s also about more [average-income] people.”
Ip believes that it isn’t superstition holding people back from making wills: it’s avoidance of lawyers and fear of the perceived associated costs. But last wishes scribbled on a piece of paper aren’t worth much in the eyes of the law. His firm offers will writing for a fixed fee to show people that a visit to the lawyers doesn’t always equal spiralling costs. “It is important to have someone experienced to write this kind of legal document because we’ve seen so many homemade wills. We’re currently working on a dispute that has been going on for ten years that stems from a homemade will,” he reveals.
Both lawyers’ enduring advice is to make a will early to avoid ambiguities: name the person who will act on your behalf after you’ve passed or are on life support. “What we’re trying to do is to raise the awareness of having everything in place by approaching lawyers that understand the situation and can give proper advice,” says Ip. In short, make sure everything is tied up and clear, and that any skeletons that could come tumbling out of the closet are accounted for.
The article was originally published on Tatler Asia – Interview by Lauren James