Writing wills can get nasty

SINGAPORE - Some may find it morbid to talk about death and what-ifs on a daily basis.

But discussing the practical consequences of death is par for the course for Mr Richard Yeo, who has been in the will-writing trade for about 13 years now.

A will is a legal document that gives specific instructions for the distribution of assets. And a work hazard of helping his clients write theirs? It can land him in the middle of family feuds.

Once, he was kept waiting in a hospital for more than three hours when his client's children started arguing. The client had been hospitalised for a problem with her leg. While not life-threatening, one daughter had convinced her to write her will, he explains.

They ran into problems when it came to signing it, a procedure which requires two witnesses. It turned out that the rest of the family did not know about the will, and were shocked at the idea of it.

Mr Yeo, who used to work as a manager in the food and beverage industry before he made a career switch, concedes that technically, you can write a will without his services or a lawyer's.

But the problem is that sometimes, it can be invalid in the eyes of the law.

"Some leave out appointing an executor of the will, which means more problems when the time comes for it to come into effect," he explains.

His only formal training was a two-day course back in 2001. But over the years, he has picked up enough experience to guide people through the process painlessly.

Now, he has his own company, Probate Enterprise. He helps write about 10 wills a month - each costs between $200 and $1,500, depending on the complexity.

A complex will, he explains, typically contains a long list of terms and instructions.

"The client could have a wide range of assets which they want left to different individuals. Some even have conditions, such as bequeathing a jewel to a family member, on the condition that they have children," he says.

The work makes him between $3,500 and $5,000 a month.

On top of that, Probate Enterprise also helps with advanced funeral planning. Clients who opt for this service want to ensure that their families don't go through the hassle of planning a funeral while grieving.

"I have a client who has a brain tumour. His wife and mum don't quite see eye to eye, so he wanted to plan his funeral in advance, so that it will not be a point of contention when the day comes," he explains.

But it's not as cut and dry as one may think. Clients do change their minds, and one changed her will six times in a single year.

It turned out that she was facing pressure and conflicting advice from her kids.

A piece of advice that he always gives to clients: No one has to know that you have made a will, and especially not what it contains.

He has seen his fair share of clients who want to take advantage of their elderly parents through wills.

"There was a client who asked me to draw up a will for his father, but I later realised that the father was actually warded in the mental hospital and was mentally unsound.

"He was planning to use his father's thumbprint to approve the will," says Mr Yeo, adding that he declined to conduct the signing.

One of the most unusual requests he got while writing a will was from a woman who dictated that her diamond bracelet should be broken up into several pieces, then distributed to family members.

A common misconception people have about wills is that it is only for the rich or those with significant wealth.

"It's about being responsible. If you don't make arrangements, your loved ones typically have to go through a lot of administrative work to sort out your assets, whether it's an HDB flat or the money you have in the bank account," he says, adding that his youngest client is 23 years old.

Mr Yeo reveals that he too has a will drawn up "for peace of mind", so that he can concentrate on his career knowing that his three children, aged between two and 15 years, will be taken care of.

He also attached some words of encouragement in his will so that his kids can come back to them long after he's gone.

Mr Yeo, whose company employs two other will-writers, estimates that about 70 per cent of Singaporeans do not have wills.

The most touching encounter he has ever come across is a woman who attached 11 pages to her actual will, filled with words of love and encouragement.

"She included cooking recipes and even suggested names for her grandchildren. It moved me," he says.

benitaay@sph.com.sg

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