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Your Asset Detail May No Longer Be Private After You Die, Singapore Probate Lawyer Says

In the U.S., if your will goes through the probate process (a legal process before one's estate can be distributed), the details of your will becomes public information. While it isn’t as exposed in Singapore, interested parties with reasons can go through a court application and your will could be “reasonably available” to them, according to Lee Shen Han, lawyer at Bonsai Law Corporation. We spoke to Shen Han to better understand the common issues around probate that you need to know.

Name: Lee Shen Han

Company: Bonsai Law Corporation

Estate Planning Specialization: Probate and Administration

Base Country: Singapore

Service Style: Fast, straightforward, and personable

Anything Interesting: Stockbroker turned lawyer

Q: Can you tell me more about yourself? Why did you decide to go into law?

Lee: I used to be a stockbroker. After doing this for a while, I decided it wasn’t something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I quit my job, travelled for a while, and went to the UK to study law before coming back to take the bar. After practicing for 4 years, I came out to start my own firm.

Q: What are your focus areas?

Lee: My key focus areas are (1) probate, administration and estate planning; (2) divorce and family law; and (3) civil litigation. Out of these three areas, my favorite practice is in estate planning, probate and administration. It’s also where my interest lies because it’s easier to make a difference in this aspect of law.

Q: What’s a typical client for you?

Lee: I cater to those who are fairly in tune with technology. This is probably because I structure my workflow in such a way that my clients are aware of the requirements and processes that they have to follow from the beginning in order for the probate application to proceed smoothly.

Q: One of the reasons why Immortalize reached out to you is because you are very transparent with your information and your pricing, which is very different from many other law firms. Why did you decide to take this approach?

Lee: It’s good for the consumer as well as the law firm. In this day and age, everybody wants to know exactly what they are paying for and what they will be getting. With transparent pricing, consumers know exactly what they are getting, and you will be less likely to have unhappy clients.

I follow this mantra as a consumer as well. When I purchase a product or service, I would like as detailed a breakdown of what I’m buying as possible. At the end of the day, I understand that all businesses need to turn a profit but the more I know about the specifics of what a business is offering me and what they are providing, the more likely I will be to engage and buy the product or service.

Q: What are the common issues with probate?

Lee: One of the main issues in probate are wills that are not well-drafted. Generally, the majority of these wills are homemade wills but occasionally wills done by will-writing companies or even law firms can have issues. Generally, the wills will not necessarily be invalid, but may face problems during the probate application.

A common scenario is when the attestation clause has no interpretation. For example, the testator (person wanting to write the will) affixes a thumb print instead of signing but there is no mention whether the testator reads and understands English or whether the will has been explained to the testator in a language he/she understands.

It’s not always the case, but if someone is signing in language other than English or affixing a thumbprint, it’s possible that this person doesn't understand English or is illiterate.

This tends to show up on the Court’s radar and the Court may then request for further information from the witnesses to the will, further complicating the probate process.

Q: Why is it that in your fixed fee to extract a grant of probate for non-Muslims, the value of the estate needs to be less than SG$3 million?

Lee: If the estate is more than $3 million, the filing fees are higher.

Q: Any reasons why people should still do a will even if intestacy law applies to them?

Lee: It varies from individual to individual but there are many reasons to do so. If you’re a parent, you can appoint a guardian (person appointed to take care of the children if both parents die) of your choice in your will. If you want a specific person to be the executor and not somebody that falls under the priority structure of the Intestate Succession Act, you can only do this through a will. Another scenario and one that seems to be becoming increasingly popular is giving a gift to charities, which can also only be done through a will.

Q: Any advice that you want to tell people if they want to get a probate so that the process would be smoother?

Lee: Well, avoiding the probate process altogether would probably be the simplest way of doing things. It’s not always possible to avoid probate entirely but there are some ways in which you can attempt to do so through the use of trusts and/or joint-name assets.

Q: It’s interesting that you mentioned avoiding probate. In the US, it seems that avoiding probate is a reason why people look at estate planning because once the will gets through the probate process, it becomes public. Is that the case for Singapore?

Lee: It won’t exactly be public but it is possible to gain access to the contents of the will through a court application after the probate.

Q: Is it available to anyone who applies?

Lee: You’ll have to provide appropriate reasons to the court but it should be reasonably available to an interested party.

Q: Any upcoming trends in the estate planning space?

Lee: One trend I’ve noticed is the use of free online will generators. There’s nothing wrong with trying to DIY but these online will generators tend to be structured in a way that you can only do things in a certain way.

What this means is that a layperson may end up churning out a will that goes against his/her actual intentions.

I’ve encountered a scenario where the will generated states, “I give my immovable property at XYZ address to my daughter absolutely” before going on to state “I give my immovable property at XYZ address to my son absolutely”.

Problem With DIY Will

You can’t give away the same property to more than one person absolutely but because of how some of these online platforms are structured, the will-generator doesn't allow for the will to gift the property in percentages. A layperson who’s not familiar with the law surrounding wills may then end up using the online will generator to give a property to one person, absolutely, and then accidentally give the same property to another person, absolutely.

In such situations, the probate process may turn out to be more expensive because the Court may flag out these discrepancies and ask the law firm handling the probate to address these issues.

Q: What’s your interest?

Lee: I’m interested in writing and technology. I’m generally curious about tech startups and I have previously self-published books on app development and software-as-a-service (SaaS) business models.

I’m fascinated by the intersection between technology and law, and my guess is that the unicorns of the legal industry in the future will be lawyers who are able to code and are competent in their areas of practice.

Similar to how startups look for full-stack developers, law firms will start looking out for full-stack lawyers.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or site should be construed as providing legal advice or advice of any sort. The information provided are general in nature and may become inaccurate over time. Please consult a professional for advice.

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