Will Your Will be disputed like Lee Kuan Yew’s Will?
It is natural, as we grow older, to think about how we would like our property to be managed and distributed after we pass on. Not only do we want to provide for our dependents and loved ones, but we also want to leave them with happy memories, rather than unnecessary aggravation and conflict.


Recent events surrounding challenges to the late Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s last will serve as a reminder of not only the importance of leaving behind a clear and well-written will but also having an impartial executor to carry out your wishes.


You may be wondering, “what, exactly, is the problem?” Mr Lee Kuan Yew, throughout his lifetime, made many wills. One of the issues arising from these wills was what should be done with Mr Lee’s residence, 38 Oxley Road as different wills contained different instructions as to Mr Lee’s intentions for the property. His sixth and final will indicated that Mr Lee wished for the property to be demolished after his death. After Mr Lee’s death in 2015, his three children, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Dr Lee Wei Ling, and Lee Hsien Yang became the executor of the elder Mr Lee’s estate. Amid public calls to transform 38 Oxley Road into a national monument to Mr Lee, a dispute subsequently arose between the three executors of the late Mr Lee’s estate regarding the future of 38 Oxley Road.


A well-written will and a careful choice of executor can make all the difference between leaving your loved ones with happy memories and leaving them with a messy family dispute.


What is an executor?

The executor is the individual appointed in a will to distribute the deceased person’s property and pay his or her debts and expenses. An executor is also responsible for proving the validity of a will in court.


When a person (the ‘testator’) writes a will, that person chooses other people (the ‘beneficiaries’) to inherit his or her property (or ‘estate’). However, the testator must also choose one or more ‘executors’ to administer and distribute his or her property upon his or her death.


Usually but not always, the executor also acts as the ‘trustee’ over that property. This allows the trustee to hold the property and facilitate its distribution in accordance with the will. A trustee may also hold on to the deceased person’s property on behalf of beneficiaries who are under the age of 21.


If the deceased person passes away without leaving a valid will, his or her next-of-kin can apply to the court for a Letter of Administration – a court order which enables the next-of-kin to administer the estate and distribute the deceased person’s property in accordance to Singapore’s laws.


Who should I appoint as my executor?

Anyone over the age of twenty-one (21), who is not bankrupt, can act as an executor. It is also possible to have a single executor or multiple executors. The maximum number is four (4). Because an executor can refuse to execute the will, it is important to obtain your chosen executor’s consent before you name him or her in your will.


You may also wish to nominate several backup executors in your will, in case any of your chosen executors become unable to fulfil their duties. It is also important to bear in mind that the executor is entrusted with a significant responsibility to administer the estate and distribute it in accordance with the testator’s wishes. Therefore an honest and competent executor is critical.


For these reasons a person making a will sometimes provides for a professional executor, such as a lawyer, law firm or accountant, for reasons of impartiality and trustworthiness, and because of the heavy workload required to administer and distribute assets. Hiring a professional executor is particularly important if you have a large or complicated estate.


While it is possible to choose one of your beneficiaries as an executor, it is not advisable to appoint one of the beneficiaries of your will to act as executor, unless your will only has one beneficiary, such as your spouse. This is due to the potential for conflict of interest.


What are the responsibilities of an executor?

One of an executor’s main responsibilities is to apply to the court for a grant of probate (see below). Even though the executor is named in the deceased person’s will, a grant of probate is still required so that the executor can be appointed as the legal representative of the deceased person’s estate.


Once this process is completed, an executor is also responsible for arranging the deceased person’s funeral according to his or her wishes expressed in the will. The executor is also responsible for making an accurate inventory of the deceased person’s property, settling the deceased person’s debts and other financial obligations, and distributing the deceased person’s property to the beneficiaries named in the will.


It is worth nothing that acting as an executor is an important duty and should not be taken lightly as there may be legal implications for failing to follow the wishes of the deceased person as per their wishes in their Will.


What is probate?

Probate refers to the legal process of proving that a person’s will is valid and authentic after he or she has died. This must be completed before the executor can sell or distribute the deceased person’s property.


The process usually lasts up to six months. Once it is completed successfully, the court will issue a document – known as a ‘grant of probate’ – which confirms the authenticity of the will. This document is required before the executor can sell or transfer the deceased person’s property.


Because applying to the court for a grant of probate is complex, most executors appoint a probate lawyer to complete the process on their behalf.


A different process is also required for Muslims. Because a Muslim estate must be managed based on Islamic inheritance laws, it is recommended that you consult with a probate lawyer who is familiar with Syariah law and can assist you in applying for probate.


What if I do not appoint an executor?

If the deceased person died without a valid will or if the executor is unable to perform his or her role (for example, because he or she has died or become bankrupt), the deceased person’s personal representative(s) must apply to the court for a ‘letter of administration’ so that they can be appointed as administrators of the deceased person’s property.


This process is longer and more expensive than obtaining a grant of probate.


Additional problems and delays can arise if family members disagree about who should administer. This is because, if there is no will, Singapore law gives priority to the deceased person’s spouse, second priority to the deceased person’s children, third priority to his or her siblings and so on. All members of each of these classes have an equal right to apply to become an administrator of the deceased person’s estate.


For example, if a deceased person has no living spouse but has three living children, all three of the children have an equal right to apply to administer their deceased parent’s estate. The eldest child does not have priority over the other two.


These problems can be easily solved by writing a valid will which clearly names your executors.


How we can help

At I.R.B Law LLP we have experienced Wills and Probate Lawyers who are passionate about justice and fairness. Our lawyers will be able to guide you through composing a will or applying for a grant of probate or letter of administration at each and every stage of the proceedings. We firmly believe that everyone should be entitled to professional legal advice and service at affordable rates.


Should you be in a position where you may need our assistance, please do not hesitate and contact us at [email protected] or call us at +65 6589 8913 so that we can advise you on your matter.


The information contained in this article is provided for general information only and may not reflect current status in relation to applicable law, cases, settlements or judgments. Nothing contained on this website or article is intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be construed as I.R.B Law LLP agreeing to provide legal services to you. You acknowledge and agree that your use of this website shall not create a lawyer-client relationship with I.R.B Law LLP.