|A China Will Registration Center staff member explains its procedures at its Beijing branch. [China Daily/Wang Jing]|
With people becoming wealthier, efforts are being made to avoid inheritance disputes
Li looked reassured as he held his certificate from the China Will Registration Center, a charity organization that offers free advice to people over 60 looking to avoid family inheritance disputes by making a will.
The document proved the 83-year-old had deposited his will at the center's Beijing branch. His heirs will be able to retrieve it only after his death, and they will have to abide by its instructions regarding their inheritance.
Until then, Li is the only person with access to the will, and he can make changes to it anytime.
Though silver-haired, he looks hale and hearty, as do most of the elderly at the center.
"I have no cardiovascular diseases or Alzheimer's, and therefore thought little about making a will," said Li, who asked not to be fully identified. "But after reading about the free service at the center, I changed my mind and decided to finish the task while my mind is still clear. Otherwise, my children would have to go through a lot of trouble after my wife and I become less aware."
Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, the central leadership has repeatedly called for increased nongovernment involvement in social governance, including the welfare of the elderly.
Raindrop, an NGO in Jinan, Shandong province, initiated a program in 2016 to help tackle "empty-nest elderly" issues — which arise with parents whose children have left their hometowns— by organizing activities such as sports meets for the elderly.
Others noticed the seniors' legal needs. The China Social Welfare Foundation launched a program in 2015 to provide free will-making consultations for seniors in Beijing.
But the China Will Registration Center, founded in 2013, went a step beyond that. Chen Kai, who started the project, said that besides consultations, it also handles the drafting and safekeeping of wills — essential to avoiding legal disputes.
"During the will-making process, we adopt measures such as video recording and facial recognition to guarantee the will's validity," Chen said. "By keeping the will at the center and confidential, aging parents can avoid family disputes before death. In extreme cases, children have been known to coerce their parents to make changes to wills.
"After a parent dies, heirs can take their parent's ID card and death certificate and come to the center to see if they have preserved wills at the center. The center also cooperates with the courts and can provide evidence if legacy disputes do occur."
Chen, a 41-year-old lawyer, said a legally binding will has to fulfill a series of requirements including the format and content, which are nearly impossible for elderly people with limited means to handle. "When disputes arise, wills with loopholes would be rendered invalid," he said.
To deposit his will at the center, Li called to make an appointment for a consultation, where he had a face-to-face talk with his counselor. He was then given a computer-generated will in accordance with his desires that he then transcribed by hand to another piece of paper.
Finally, his handwritten will had to go through a review process, which normally takes two months at most, and he had to have a mental examination, either at the center or at a qualified hospital, to prove the will was made with his knowledge. The center has contracted the mental examination service out to a qualified organization, the Beijing Hexie Heritage Service Center, which charges 480 yuan ($75).
Funding for the center's other services mainly comes from two charities, the China Aging Development Foundation and the Beijing Sunny Senior Health Fund, and government subsidies.
As Chinese become richer and the number of inheritance disputes rises, experts say people are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of legally binding wills.
Yuan Xin, a professor at Nankai University who studies aging and development, said China has seen an economic boom in the past few decades and people now have much more disposable income.
"Surveys show more than 85 percent of the country's elderly own real estate, which is a huge amount of wealth, especially in first-tier cities like Beijing," he said.
The increased wealth, along with a soaring divorce rate, had led the educated elderly to seek legally binding protection of their legacies, he said.
Chen echoed Yuan's comments. "I have seen a decline in cases involving children failing to support their aging parents in recent years," he said. "But cases involving inheritance disputes have risen."
A report based on 80,000 wills registered at the center shows the percentage of will-makers aged between 60 and 70 has increased steadily in the past five years, from less than 30 percent in 2013 to 43 percent in 2017, whereas the percentage of those older than 70 has declined.
Real estate appeared in more than 99 percent of wills, making it the most common type of inheritance, the report said. Bank savings followed, but only appeared in 17 percent.
Almost all the wills specified that the inheritance was intended for their children and was not the joint property of their children's marriage, meaning their children's spouses would get nothing in the event of a divorce.
The UN predicts the number of Chinese over the age of 60 will double by 2050, reaching 480 million, while those over 80 will triple, reaching 110 million. That scenario means 25 percent of the world's elderly population will be living in China by then.
The idea for the center came to Chen in 2007, when he was on an exchange program at a law firm in Australia. He was surprised to find most Australians had made their wills in their 30s or 40s, whereas ordinary Chinese, even the wealthy, did not take the making of wills seriously.
Two years later, when he became the legal adviser at the China Aging Development Foundation, Chen found that as Chinese become richer, the thorniest issues faced by the elderly are no longer domestic violence or children failing to support their parents, but inheritance disputes.
"At first I was thinking about launching a legal assistance program helping senior citizens who want to make wills, but soon I realized it would not work. Because while the elderly penned their wills when they were conscious, their children would still fight over the inheritance and that would affect their parents' lives."
That is when the prototype of the China Will Registration Center formed in his mind.
Chinese people make and execute wills, Chen said, but there are usually years, even decades between the two steps, during which time many problems can arise, such as disputes over a will's authenticity, whereas registering or entrusting a will with a third-party custodian was common practice in the West.
He said the will registration center can fill the gap. The elderly can use it to seek legal advice, and it can also help them preserve their wills with confidentiality. That means those making wills can avoid family disputes while they are alive, and their will's authenticity can be guaranteed.
"The center uses methods including fingerprints, video recording, facial recognition and exclusion of heirs in the registration process to make sure the will reflects the will-maker's wishes," he said.
"It is nonprofit and as a third party it does not represent either party involved in an inheritance dispute, which is different from hiring an attorney. The center's nonprofit nature enhances its trustworthiness and the will's validity."
When a will's validity is unquestionable, those claiming an inheritance will not resort to legal action. "Nobody wants to lodge a suit that is destined to lose," Chen said. "Compared with paying the legal costs, the claimants would rather sit down for a negotiation, and the legal resources are thus saved."
Yin Yanhe, director of the center's Beijing branch, said that to cover as many senior citizens as possible, it only serves those able to read and write－because they need to transcribe the computer-generated wills－and has upper limits on the assets involved.
"We don't provide a free service to will-makers with more than two properties, bank cards or securities accounts," she said, adding the threshold can help the center exclude extreme cases and improve its efficiency.
"Those with special requirements — such as will-makers with mental diseases or with a large amount of assets — should seek paid service from organizations such as a notarial office," Yin said.
The center can serve 20 to 25 people wanting to make a will on an average day, she said, compared with a maximum of two in most notarial offices.
Chen said the center has seven branches, including in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, and is still expanding. By 2024, it wants 600 million Chinese to better understand the need to make wills at an early age.
But he is candid about the difficulties ahead.
"The importance of will registration has not been recognized by Chinese laws or policymakers," he said. "Though the center has been well received by the elderly, we need more marketing personnel to raise the center's awareness among younger groups as well."
(Source: China Daily)