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A person dying intestate leaves his or her property by default under the intestacy rules, this means that the beneficiaries are determined by their relationship to the deceased with the spouse and children taking high priority followed by surviving parents. The intestate succession act can be clearly seen in the table below:

Table Showing Distribution of Assets When a Person Dies Intestate with 2 columns "Decease Die Intestate Leaving" and "Distribution"

Table Showing Distribution of Assets When a Person Dies Intestate

Now, problems can arise when the beneficiaries of the deceased are also dead moving the succession down to the descendants, in cases like this tracing the beneficiaries would be the best bet the probate court has to distribute the estate and any fortune left behind. Usually gathering persons who are entitled to an estate is an easy task but factors like estrangement, relocation and transfer to another country are not taken into account. If any of the above mentioned has happened during the course of the deceased life then tracing beneficiaries becomes a hard task. Aside from descendants administrators can also look up a person’s ascendants just to determine any possible persons who can lay claim to an estate.

Situations, where the administrator of the estate has already gathered all the assets of the deceased’s estate but cannot proceed to the distribution, can happen, this is all due to the fact that the beneficiaries have not been ascertained yet. These two cases concerning tracing the tracing of beneficiaries show just how complicated things get when beneficiaries to an estate are not clearly named.

Estate of Madam Wan Chin Neo

This case involves the administration of the estate of Madam Wan Chin Neo. In 1937, a Peranakan widow Wan Chin Neo, a mother of three, bought a small bungalow in Katong for $1,900 (a princely sum back in the days). She created a trust stating that the property should remain in the family and that it was for her descendants to occupy in perpetuity. By the end of 1939, Madam Wan and her two daughters Madam Koh Sun Hay and Madam Koh Keng Hay were already dead leaving only her son Mr Koh alive. 70 years later the house in Carpmael Road in Joo Chiat came to the attention of the High Court who the stated that the intention of Madam Wan to keep the house in the family forever was not valid and ordered the house to be sold and distributed among the surviving descendants. In 2013, the property was sold for almost $4 million.  The biggest challenge faced by the trustees, Rockwills Trusts, was tracking down Madam Wan’s descendants and some fifty people have staked their claims. This exhaustive search even went as far as tombstone inspections at Bukit Brown cemetery and listings in the Government Gazettes Gazettes and newspaper advertisements

Estate of Reclusive Sisters

In July 2016, the Strait Times reported the discovery of the skeletons of two elderly women in a single-storey terrace house at 17 Jalan Batai, a house that is worth at least $2 million. The skeletons are the remains of the sisters Pearl and Ruby Tan, who has not been seen by neighbours and relatives for over a decade. The Public Trustee’s Office (PTO) asked interested parties to submit their claims, but since the sisters died intestate and were both unmarried, the estate passed on to the Government.

Probate assets are passed down according to the intestacy rules, in the case of the recluse sisters the power of wills and or trusts is needed in order for the estate to be passed on to relatives like cousins or nieces but without these the estate is left to the hands of the government.

Tracing estate beneficiaries is necessary because no matter how organised or transparent an estate is if there are no beneficiaries present then it would not be distributed properly. The last resort for situations where no beneficiaries can be found is the Government getting the property and all assets left by the deceased. Prevent such scenarios from happening, create a will and start and trust.

Want to learn more about rules of succession and the roles of wills and trusts in wealth and asset management? Grab a copy of the book “The Rockwills Guide to  Succession and Trusts in Wealth Management”. Just click the link