A close relative died recently, at age 89. She is survived by two biological sons and many daughters. Two years before, her mental capacity started to deteriorate. In her living years, she had drafted three Wills, bequeathing her property to whichever son who accompanied her to the lawyers. All three Wills were done secretly without any consultation with any of her many daughters, nor was she ever willing to discuss her wishes or intentions with them.
It was not until after her death that the content of her Will was revealed. I could not help but wonder if she really understood what she was affixing her thumbprint to. Was she of sound mind? Did the Will reflect her true intentions or was it influenced by someone else, including her sons? If she had known of the possible consequences of the final Will, what would she have done differently?
Fast forward 3 years, although the estate is probated, to date, the matter is still unresolved because both sons are still engaged in a court battle over her estate.
The situation with the Will of my mother-in-law, 88 years old this year, is in stark contrast. Her Will was drafted years ago. Recently, she has had her Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) certified and registered with the Office of Public Guardian. She has always communicated her wishes clearly to all her children. Although she has not carried out Advance Care Planning nor knows of the existence of the relevant documentation, she has clearly expressed her wishes for her care should she be in poor health.
When she came upon a windfall, she openly gave a sum of money to each of her grandchildren and her children, keeping sufficient for her retirement and her ‘’vices’’. As a result, her children stayed emotionally close to her and continue to check in on her frequently.
As an empty nester, I started spending more time with my mother-in-law. During a recent visit, she showed me a copy of her Will and also shared with me her intentions. I was embarrassed, as I always see my position as her daughter-in-law. However, she assures me that I am very much her daughter. She treats me the same as she treats any of her children.
Whether we like it or not, we are all leaving a legacy. Our legacy is a combination of how we live our lives, the impact we have on others and how we prepare our loved ones to move on with their lives when we are not around. Most of the time, people assume that legacy planning is the same as estate planning. But legacy planning is more than leaving gifts, possessions or money. (For more details on estate planning, you can visit this link: https://providend.com/estate-planning-made-easy-introduction/)
As I reflect on how these two matriarchs lived their life, what can I learn about legacy planning?
You can be very successful in your career and personal life, but if you leave a mess upon your passing, someone, usually a family member, will have to clean it up. For example, if there is no Will, the probate process will likely be more tedious and costly. The probate process also occurs at the worst time as the family is still grieving. In addition, if proper estate preservation is not taken care of, the size of an estate can be eroded because of liabilities, guarantees, prolonged medical expenses, etc. Your loved ones may also not know how to start the probate process if the estate is left in a mess. I use the analogy of going to someone’s kitchen to cook a meal… now where is the spatula?
The above are issues that can occur if estate planning alone is not thought through. However, legacy planning, as compared to estate planning, entails thinking about the following:
- The values we want to impart to our loved ones,
- The planning of the transfer of wealth and assets, and
- Ensuring that the heirs are happy and benefitting from the inheritance that we leave behind.
Like throwing a stone into a pond, the ripples embody the effects of how we conduct these tasks continue into the next generation.
In my close relative’s case, the family members do not know what her real intentions were for her property. In my mind, she must be grieved to see the state of the relationship between both her sons. Instead of harmony, there is strife and unhappiness. It has been said that death and taxes are certain. But the timing of death is not. The time to clarify one’s estate issues is before, not after.
So, what are the requirements for sound legacy planning?
Legacy plans have to be communicated.
My mother-in-law has already scored an A* in this regard. There is no second-guess of her intentions. In fact, it is very much her character not to cause inconvenience to her children since she values family harmony and unity. It was critical for her that her wishes are transparent and fair.
Start by thinking through your goals and values. My mother-in-law also valued family gatherings, especially cooking big meals together. She is a fabulous cook and by showing how her famous dishes are prepared to all her sons and daughters-in-law, she has ensured that her recipes live on long after she passes on.
By clarifying your goals and values, your beneficiaries will not feel unprepared or overwhelmed by the awesome responsibility of preserving/growing the inheritance. Or worse, lose it all as they do not understand the “heart” sweat that goes into amassing the wealth. Share with them the thinking behind the gifts, especially so if the amounts given are unequal. It is important to let them know that the financial gift is just an expression, and not a measure, of your love for them. Any amount is a bonus and should not be taken as an entitlement. The end outcome is to have a harmonious family where there is mutual love and respect. Share with your children your decisions and allow them to share their concerns, input and feedback, even though it is your money and they are not the ones making the decisions.
Is property a good asset gift as a bequest?
It depends. Property, especially if it is a family home, brings with it many associated emotions and memories. So, the conversation should begin by asking how the children feel about inheriting the property. Ultimately, an appropriate gift should enhance their lives rather than create strife.
Share with them if it is your desire for the property to be sold. What will be the circumstances for the property to be sold? How are the proceeds going to be used? Unlike buying a property in the name of the adult child, inheritance of property assets does not attract stamp duty and additional buyers’ stamp duty. But if the beneficiary should inherit and subsequently sell the property within 3 years, the person would have to pay the applicable seller’s stamp duty. The inherited property would be added to that beneficiary’s property count should she/he proceed to buy another property.
Gifting during one’s lifetime
Rather than gifting after you pass on, there are many advantages to gifting during one’s lifetime. For starters, you can observe for yourself how your gift has helped or transformed your loved ones. Whether the amount is big or small, you can observe how your gift was received and you can make your decisions on future gifting based on how your loved ones regarded your prior gifts.
An additional advantage is potential mentoring by the gifter. The gifter, perhaps a parent, may set up a joint investment account with the receiver, maybe a child, through a financial institution such as Providend. This would give the child an opportunity to work with Providend as their portfolio manager when the parents start gifting. It also offers the parent an opportunity to see how the child relates to money. There can be conversations about finances and investment philosophy. The parents would be more comfortable, ultimately, in passing their estate to the child after seeing how the child handles money during their lifetime. It also gives a child a good head-start in being financially literate and comfortable with money prior to a need to discuss estate transfer.
The greatest legacy you can give your children is your own financial independence
Looking at how both matriarchs lived their lives, these are the lessons I have gleaned from. Both of them amassed their wealth by saving their hard-earned pennies. My close relative amassed her wealth over a lifetime of frugality and selling many things big and small. She was a small entrepreneur and sold whatever opportunity presented: Eggs, plants, nasi lemak, etc.
In her younger days, my mother-in-law made and sold kuehs in her coffee shop. She also rented out part of her coffee shop for income. Through prudence, she was able to amass sufficient wealth to buy a freehold apartment as a family home. By being financially independent, she never needed to depend on her children to provide for her and my father-in-law. She has lived a productive and meaningful good life. She said to me, “Life need not be complicated. Contentment and happiness are most important.” Coming from someone who has lived through the Japanese invasion of Singapore in the 1940s and was under the subjugation of her then father-in-law, she is indeed a strong woman with a forgiving spirit. I think, unlike my close relative, she knows the true value of money. The purpose of money is to enable one to have purpose and to achieve one’s life goals. Money should be an enabler, shouldn’t it? This is a true legacy.
This is an original article written by Eleanor Ng, Associate Director of Advisory Team at Providend, Singapore’s First Fee-Only Wealth Advisory Firm.
For more related resources, check out:
1. The Importance of End-of-Life Planning
2. My Reflection on the True Value of Estate & Legacy Planning
3. Life Decisions First Before Legacy Decisions
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