Estate settlement in Singapore for your deceased loved ones: Here's what you need to do after the funeral

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While most people will offer their condolences and help for the funeral, the steps to take after a funeral are often undiscussed.

As it can be confusing to deal with the money, property and possessions (their ‘estate’) of the person who passed away without a helping hand, here is a guide to estate settlement.

What is included in an estate?

All assets of monetary value form the estate of the person who passed away. This includes bank accounts, investments, some instances of insurance, safe deposit boxes, physical possessions, properties and vehicles.

What is the process of estate settlement?

The first step is to check if the person who has passed away has written a will.

If there is a will, the executor will have to apply for a Grant of Probate to distribute the estate in accordance to the will. The executor is someone named in the will, or in an update to the will (a ‘codicil’), as a person who is nominated to distribute the estate.

You can check for a will by:

  • Going through the personal belongings of the person who passed away
  • Asking close family members or friends if they know where the will was kept
  • Asking the lawyer who helped to draft the will
  • Searching for will information in the Legacy vault (managed by gov.sg)
  • Searching for will information in the Wills Registry (managed by Singapore Academy of Law)

If there is no will, the estate will be distributed in accordance to the Intestate Succession Act. You will have to apply for a Letter of Administration to administer the estate.

The administrator is someone who is appointed by the court to manage and distribute the estate of a deceased person according to the Intestate Succession Act.

For estates with less than $50,000 value, you may apply for the Public Trustee to administer the estate instead.

The executor or the administrator will then

  1. Determine what assets were owned by the deceased and estimate the total value of the estate.
  2. Pay off any of the deceased’s outstanding debt, bills or taxes and
  3. Distribute the assets to the beneficiaries according to the will or distribute the assets to the beneficiaries according to the Intestate Succession Act (if there’s no will).
PHOTO: Dollars and Sense

What is excluded from a will?

CPF savings are not part of the estate and are excluded from distribution by a will. CPF savings will be distributed to the nominated beneficiaries if the deceased has made a CPF nomination.

If there is no CPF nomination, the monies will be distributed in accordance with the Intestate Succession Act.

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However, CPF investments (cash and investments held in the CPF Investment Accounts (CPFIS-OA and CPFIS-SA)) are part of the estate and will be distributed in accordance to the will or intestacy law if there is no will.

Insurance policies with irrevocable nominations are also excluded from distribution of an estate and will be distributed directly to the beneficiaries.

Properties with joint tenancy are excluded from the estate and the will but properties with tenancy-in-common are not. The deceased’s share of the tenancy-in-common can be distributed as part of the estate.

For properties with joint tenancy, the ownership will pass on to the surviving joint tenant.

For example, if you and your spouse purchased a HDB as joint tenancy, upon your passing, the HDB will go to your spouse. You cannot leave the HDB to your parents (or anyone) in your will as it does not form part of your estate.

About the Intestate Succession Act

The Intestate Succession Act sets out the distribution of assets when a person passes away without a will. It determines who are the eligible beneficiaries and the proportion of the estate received by each beneficiary.

The Intestate Succession Act does not apply to the estate of any Muslim citizen or permanent resident in Singapore. Instead, Muslim inheritance law will apply for Muslim citizens or permanent residents in Singapore.

Here is the default distribution of estate assets according to Intestate Succession Act.

Surviving Beneficiaries Distribution
Only spouse. No children, no parents 100 per cent to spouse.
Only parents. No spouse, no children 100 per cent to parents, to be shared equally.
Spouse and children. – 50 per cent share to surviving spouse. – 50 per cent share to be shared equally among children and, where they have already died, their children. – Parents are not entitled to anything.
Only children. No spouse. – 100 per cent to children, to be split equally amongst them. If any of the children is deceased, their children can claim the share accordingly. – Parents are not entitled to anything.
Spouse and parents. – 50 per cent to spouse. – 50 per cent to parents, to be shared equally.
Only sibling(s). No spouse, no children/descendants, no parents. 100 per cent to be shared equally among siblings and, where they have already died, their children.
Only grandparents. No spouse, no children/descendants, no parents, no siblings and their children. 100 per cent to surviving grandparents, to be shared equally.
Uncles and Aunts No spouse, no children/descendants, no parents, no siblings and their children, no grandparents. 100 per cent to uncles and aunts, to be shared equally.
If all above scenarios do not apply Government is entitled to the estate.

* Intestate law only recognises legitimate or legally adopted children and the descendants of these children. Illegitimate children and transferred children are not entitled under intestate law.

Can the Public Trustee administer the estate?

The Public Trustee under the Public Trustee’s Office under the Ministry of Law can only administer estates that are not more than $50,000 value and under specific conditions.

The Public Trust cannot act on your behalf, if:

  • a court application for Letters of Administration or Grant of Probate has been filed;
  • there are conflicting claims to the estate or disputes among the beneficiaries;
  • the estate has outstanding debts or liabilities;
  • the person who has died had shares or other interest in unlisted companies (foreign or local);
  • the person who has died was a partner, a sole proprietor or had an interest in a firm or other business;
  • the person who died was the sole lessee (owner) of a HDB flat and a child is eligible to inherit the whole or part of the flat;
  • there are pending lawsuits which involve the person who has died;
  • there are insurance policies where one or more people have been nominated as beneficiaries [Under Section 73 of the Conveyancing and Law of Property Act (Cap. 61), Sections 49L and 49M of the Insurance Act (Cap. 142)];
  • there are trust bank accounts opened with a child; and
  • there are commercial vehicles involved such as taxis.

This means that there are some common scenarios in which you cannot rely on the Public Trustee to administer the estate. For example:

  • you are a taxi driver and own your taxi. The Public Trustee will not administer because commercial vehicles such as taxis will need to be sold or your interest in it discharged.
  • you are self-employed or own a business. The Public Trustee will not administer because your interest in the business needs to be discharged or sold.
  • you are a single parent with young children who is the single owner of a HDB flat. The Public Trustee will not administer because your children cannot inherit the HDB flat directly and usually, there is a need for a guardian to be appointed.

What documents do I need or prepare for estate settlement?

As you go through the process of estate settlement, you will need to have on hand documents to verify your identity, the deceased’s identity, the beneficiaries’ identity and to prove the relationships.

Do keep originals and certified true copies of the follow documents:

  • your identification documents (NRIC or passport)
  • the deceased’s identification documents (NRIC or passport)
  • the deceased’s death certificate
  • birth certificates
  • marriage certificate
  • divorce certificate

It is good practice to make multiple certified true copies as you may need to file them with various agencies or organisations.

How do I apply for a grant of probate?

If you are the executor of a will, you will need to apply for the Grant of Probate to the Family Courts, if the deceased’s estate is valued at $5,000,000 and below or to the Family Division of the High Court, if the total value of the deceased’s estate exceeds $5,000,000.

It is advisable to engage a lawyer to help you with the application as there are many documents required to be filed and submitted to the court.

However, if you wish to apply for a Grant of Probate on your own, you can refer to the Probate and Administration Toolkit on the Family Justice Courts website.

The three main stages in the application for Grant of Probate are:

  1. Filing the application for a Grant of Probate
  2. Submission of the supporting documents
  3. Extracting the Grant of Probate

How do I apply for a letter of administration?

You can apply to be an administrator if you are an immediate family member of the deceased.

According to the Intestate Succession Act, the following people are entitled to apply for the Letters of Administration, in order of priority:

  • spouse
  • children
  • parents
  • brothers and sisters
  • nephews and nieces
  • grandparents
  • uncles and aunts

Based on the order of priority, if the children of the deceased wish to be administrator(s), the deceased’s surviving spouse should renounce their right to apply for Letters of Administration.

The court will grant the Letters of Administration to the applicant which the court assesses to be the best person to manage the deceased’s estate. There can be a maximum of four administrators for the same estate.

The process is similar to that for Grant of Probate. You can refer to the Probate and Administration Toolkit if you wish to do it yourself.

How much does it cost to hire a lawyer for Grant of Probate or Letter of Administration?

Typically, the lawyer fees for a simple Grant of Probate range from $1,000 to $1,500 and the fees for Letter of Administration may be slightly more higher by an additional $100 to $200.

The fees increase with the complexities of the case and if there is contention.

The fees for administration by the Public Trustee are tiered, to a maximum of $1,522.50 for an estate of $50,000.

What else do you need to do?

Aside from the probate process or the estate administration, there are also less obvious tasks that you will need to do after the passing of a loved one.

This would include stopping or transferring auto bill payments (such as mobile and utilities), GIRO deductions, subscriptions, closing their online accounts (such as emails, cloud storage and social media).

You will also need to deal with their physical possessions and perhaps the pets.

The entire process can be draining and long-drawn so take the necessary time to grieve before tackling these tasks and engage the help of other loved ones or friends to support you in the process.

Sample checklist for estate settlement:

  • Legal Matters
    • Check for a will
    • Engage lawyer to apply for:
      • Grant of Probate if there is a will
      • Letter of Administration if there is no will
      • OR apply for Public Trustee to administer the estate
    • Prepare a list of assets and liabilities that form the estate
  • CPF Savings
    • Check for CPF nomination
      • CPF will distribute directly to the beneficiaries
    • Financial Accounts
      • Bank Accounts
      • Credit Cards
      • Investments
        • check with banks, brokers and CDP
      • Loans
      • Safe Deposit Boxes
      • Insurance
        • Policies with irrevocable nominations will be distributed directly to beneficiaries
      • Property and Vehicle
        • Residential Property
          • Properties with joint tenancy will be passed to the surviving joint tenant
        • Commercial Property
        • Private Vehicle
        • Commercial Vehicle
      • Digital Assets
        • Emails
        • Social Media Accounts
        • Website Registrations
        • Online Business Accounts
      • Others
        • Personal Possessions (e.g. jewellery, antiques, collections)
        • Subscriptions and Automated Payments
        • Pets

This article was first published in Dollars and Sense.