Will Writing in Singapore: The Ultimate Guide

Most of us care more about what happens when we’re alive rather than when we’re dead.

But even if you’ve set aside assets or bought life insurance policies for the sake of your loved ones, your job is not fully done.

The Will may be the final piece to the puzzle.

You don’t want the law to decide who shall receive your assets, right?

In this guide, I’ll touch on:

  • what happens if you die without a Will (and if you have one)
  • how you can tailor the distribution
  • important pointers
  • .. and more

So, read on!

Too Long; Didn’t Read

how does a will work

When a Will is written and witnessed, it’s stored in a safe place. You’re still able to change the details along the way.

But upon death, the executor you’ve appointed will gather all the necessary documents including the Will and apply for the Grant of Probate – court order to formally give control to the executor to carry out the wishes in the Will.

The executor will then be able to carry out estate administration duties such as creating an estate bank account, pay off debts and liabilities, distributing any remaining assets according to the Will and any other instructions.

But there’s much more to it..

What Is a Will

A Will is a legal document that spells out how your estate (your assets) is to be distributed after death.

The main benefits of having one are the ability to specify detailed instructions to be carried out, and who shall receive the inheritance.

It’s governed by the Wills Act in Singapore.

NOTE
If you’re a foreigner or have assets overseas, it’s always a good practice to have multiple Wills in the countries you “operate” in. This is because countries may have different estate laws.

What If You Die Without a Will

The question of whether a Will is necessary always comes up.

Whether you’re single, married, or have kids, do you really need it?

And to answer this question, a comparison between dying without a Will and dying with a Will has to be done.

Let’s start with the former..

what happens if you die without a will

Generally, most assets (except for a few) will be distributed according to the intestate law in Singapore (Intestate Succession Act) or the Muslim law.

intestate succession act distribution table

Because you didn’t specify your wishes (through a Will), the law will decide how to distribute your assets for you.

This may allow unintended parties to receive your assets. And at the same time, intended parties such as your parents might not receive anything at all.

In addition, dying without a Will may incur higher costs and a longer time taken for your loved ones to receive the proceeds.

These disadvantages are eliminated with a Will, but that piece of paper provides more than that.

The Benefits of Having a Will

One of the main advantages of having a Will is to specify what (or how much) your beneficiaries will receive upon your death.

But it does more than that.

Here’s what it can do:

  • Specify who receives what
  • Avoid messy fights and disputes amongst family members
  • Beneficiaries can receive proceeds faster
  • Appoint a guardian to take care of young children
  • Lower costs incurred
  • Instead of paying out a lump sum, creating a testamentary trust to stagger payouts at different ages or pay a monthly amount
  • .. and more

The Different Roles in a Will

There are a few people involved when a Will is written up, and they’re all important.

Testator

A testator is just a fanciful name for the person who’s making the Will.

He/she should be at least 21 years old and be of sound mind.

Executor

After death, the executor is perhaps the most important figure.

He/she would be someone who is named in the Will to handle all estate administrative tasks such as applying for the Grant of Probate, going to various financial institutions to withdraw money, pay off debts and liabilities, distributing assets, and more.

The job of an executor is not easy. And should be someone who’s reliable.

The named executor could even turn down the “job”. So, it’s good to have a backup executor(s).

Although the executor holds a lot of control, he/she has to act according to the Will. Failure to do so (e.g spending money not meant for him/her) may be a criminal breach of trust.

An executor has to be over 21 years old, of sound mind and not a bankrupt. He/she can also be the beneficiary (e.g spouse or adult child).

Trustee

Although the executor can also be the trustee, their roles may be different.

The main role of the executor is to carry out the actions specified in the Will.

As for the trustee (if different from the executor), its role is to manage the estate and make proper distributions to beneficiaries.

The trustee can be a professional trust company. This can be extremely beneficial for those who wish to have more control over how their beneficiaries – especially those who are vulnerable or are young kids – receive the proceeds.

Beneficiaries

Beneficiaries are those who are named in the Will to receive your assets.

They can be any person or organisation.

Examples:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Charities
  • and more

There are no limits to how many beneficiaries you can have.

Witnesses

Once your Will is written, the signing of it must be witnessed by 2 people.

These 2 witnesses must not be beneficiaries or spouses of the beneficiaries.

They have to also be above 21 years old and of sound mind.

Guardian

Appointing a guardian can be important if you have young children who still need care and protection from a “parent”.

This may not be too big of an issue if there’s a surviving spouse.

However, it can be an issue if the testator is a single parent or when both parents die at the same time.

Who’s going to take care of the kids?

Without specifying a guardian in a Will, the court may decide and appoint someone who may not be the best person to take care of them.

The Requirements for a Valid Will

Everybody can write on a piece of paper.

But to turn it into a Will, there has to be some “officiality” to it.

Not following these rules will invalid your Will or it could be challenged in the future.

So here are some requirements that must be followed:

  1. The Will must be handwritten or printed out
  2. The testator must be at least 21 years old
  3. The signature of the testator must be at the bottom of the Will
  4. The signing of the testator must be witnessed by at least 2 witnesses (they have to sign too)

Other Information Needed to Make a Will

The most important information are related to your assets and liabilities, and how to deal with them.

Let’s start with liabilities first.

It’s important to indicate what liabilities you have and how are they going to be paid off. This will allow your executor to simply follow your instructions.

As for assets, it really depends on how generic or specific you want your Will to be (e.g to will everything to A and B in equal proportions, or to will property to A; other assets to B).

But in most cases, it’s essential to keep an updated inventory of your assets and liabilities.

This is because upon death, your executor needs to submit a document called the Schedule of Assets. It should contain all the assets and liabilities you have.

If the executor starts with a blank sheet of paper, it’s going to take a long time to write to financial institutions and verify assets, and some assets may still be left out.

What May Not Be Included in a Will

Almost everything you own can be included in a Will.

However, there are still some specific items that may not be distributed using it.

CPF Monies

These CPF items are treated differently;

  • Ordinary Account
  • Special Account
  • MediSave Account
  • Retirement Account
  • Unused CPF LIFE premiums

And they can’t be included in a Will.

So here are 2 scenarios:

If you pass away without making a CPF nomination, the money will be distributed according to the intestate succession act or Muslim law.

intestate succession act distribution table

There are the 3 disadvantages of not making this nomination:

  • not according to your wishes
  • higher costs
  • longer time
importance of cpf nomination

But if you do make the nomination, your CPF monies will be distributed as per your nomination.

Insurance Proceeds

For insurance policies with a death benefit, you’re able to make an insurance policy nomination – revocable (most common) or trust nomination.

And whenever you make a nomination, distribution will be according to the nomination and will not follow the Will. You may still “override” your insurance nomination with a Will when certain conditions are met but this may not be the most optimal way.

So when there’s a nomination and an eligible death claim is submitted, the insurance company can pay out the full sum to the nominees, without going through the legal process of obtaining the court order.

This provides liquidity to your family members who need access to cash fast.

But depending on the size of your insurance proceeds, you may not want to nominate all the policies you have.

Why?

Because when you nominate, the full sum will be paid out.

There will not be any flexibility to stagger payments or pay a monthly amount to your beneficiaries.

So some may consider to nominate only a few policies (for liquidity purposes), and then leave the rest of the policies to be distributed in the Will. Specific provisions in the Will can be made to pay out a monthly sum and/or staggering of payments depending on age.

Jointly Owned Properties

There are 2 types of joint ownership: joint tenancy and tenancy-in-common.

In a joint tenancy, the right of survivorship applies.

Meaning, if the husband is not around anymore, the wife will have full ownership of the property.

On the other hand, in a tenancy-in-common, the share of the property is clearly specified. For example, 50/50 or 80/20.

So in this case, the individual’s portion can be willed away.

Joint Bank Accounts

Monies from joint bank accounts usually doesn’t form part of the deceased’s estate.

The surviving joint bank account holder can go to the bank and close the account, and have the balance transferred out.

But this may not always be the case as it can be challenged.

Trust Funds

Assets that are placed with trust companies may not form part of the estate.

This gives you even more control over how exactly the distribution to your beneficiaries will be like.

Reasons for placing money in a trust fund can be as such:

  • confidentiality
  • asset protection from creditors
  • tailoring payments to beneficiaries who are vulnerable or careless with money
  • .. and more

Who Can Write a Will

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a lawyer to write a Will.

You can even write one yourself.

However, for a Will to be valid, it must still satisfy the requirements previously mentioned. If not, it’s really just a piece of paper.

Yourself

There are online templates and online will writing services to help you.

You may even get such templates for free.

These options could be a cost-effective way to get a Will written. But it generally applies to more generic and simple ones.

There’s still a risk of it not being properly written which may invalid the Will.

In any case, making a Will with a professional doesn’t cost a huge amount these days. And you’re able to save time by leaving it to them.

Lawyer

A lawyer may be the first person to look for when you want to write a Will.

But it may not be their specialty.

If you get a lawyer to write a Will, it generally costs more compared to other options.

Because it’s “written by a lawyer”, a premium may be charged.

Professional Will Writers

As Wills need not be written by lawyers, this could be the best of both worlds in terms of affordability and expertise.

The price of a basic Will can cost around $300-400.

Some of these will writing companies are created by lawyers themselves and may have connections to the law firm.

This is great because it can bring in heavier expertise if needed.

These will writing companies are also integrated with other estate planning services such as LPA, setting up of trusts, etc.

And when the time comes, they’re able to handle probate matters too.

Therefore, having just a single point of contact will provide you the convenience, without the cost of a bomb.

Where to Keep Your Will

When you’ve gotten your Will written up and witnessed, it’s time to store it.

It should be in a safe yet accessible place. Not in a place where no one else can find it.

Because if it can’t be found, it’s as good as gone.

You should also let your executor know where it’s stored.

There are some places where you shouldn’t store it in such as a safe deposit box at the bank. This is because if death really does happen, the bank may not release the contents in the box, especially if it’s individually owned.

Here are some places you can consider:

Safe box at home

It can be a good place because there’s some protection while still being accessible.

Wills registry

If you decide to store it in any physical location, you can also register the details of the location with the Wills registry service, at a small fee.

This service doesn’t keep the Will for you, just the details of it.

So it allows your family to know about it if they were to do a search.

Wills custody service

Most will writing companies do offer a service to store the Wills.

They can safekeep the Wills for lifetime.

This not only ensures proper protection (with waterproof/fireproof vaults) but privacy and confidentiality too.

It does come at a higher fee (usually less than $1,000) but when combined with the rest of the company can do, it’s an all-in-one service.

How to Revoke a Will

There may be times when circumstances change.

A new family member may be added or an old one taken out.

Writing a Will is not just a one-time thing, and then letting it set in stone. It requires a review from time to time, especially when there are major changes.

Examples of changes:

  • death of a beneficiary
  • death of the executor
  • a new child or grandchild is born
  • new majors assets acquired
  • divorce
  • etc

So if there are significant changes, then consider making appropriate changes to the Will.

It can be a simple modification with a codicil or doing up an entire new one (destroying previous copies).

It’s also good to know to know that upon marriage, Wills are automatically revoked. Whereas in divorce, the Will is still valid.

Creating a Testamentary Trust Using a Will (Will Trust)

As mentioned earlier, you can appoint a trustee.

The role of a trustee is different from the executor. Its role is to manage and make distributions to the beneficiaries.

You may not need a trustee if you wish to just will the full sum to your beneficiaries in one-shot.

However, that may not be the most optimal way as your beneficiaries may not handle the sudden increase in wealth well. Not forgetting that it can attract a lot of weird people around them.

That’s when a testamentary trust comes in to provide greater complexity and control.

With it, you can specify how exactly payouts are to be made. For example, only paying out a certain amount when a beneficiary reaches a certain age or obtains a tertiary degree. You can also specify a monthly amount to be paid out instead of the full sum.

The executor can also be the trustee.

However, if you don’t want your executor (e.g spouse) to handle everything, you can appoint a trust company as the trustee.

That way, they’ll handle the management of the estate and the distribution, according to the Will. This does come with a fee.

The testamentary trust is only created upon death.

There are also other types of trusts that you can consider such as living trusts (created when you’re living). These can be viable options if you’re looking for even greater control and confidentiality.

What’s Next?

Most of the time – whether your assets are complex or not – a Will will be useful.

A basic Will is affordable yet can be changed over time.

When combined with other estate planning tools, your job is pretty much done.

Other tools that you can consider are CPF nominations and insurance nominations.

If you want even more control, learn about setting up trusts in Singapore.

Abram Lim

With over 7 years of experience in the financial advisory industry, and previous stints in Citibank and UOB, Abram eagerly shares his knowledge by publishing research-backed articles. Learn more about Abram