Inheritance lax

Case of a contested will sparks broad debate in China


More wills are being litigated

China wants more of its population to make wills. Forty years of economic growth means many of the country’s elderly have more assets to pass on. But the practice of will-making is far from widespread. Many families go to war over inheritances, which has clogged up the court system in some of the richer cities.

So it’s even more of a problem in cases when a will is completed but then overruled.

This was the case for Mr Liu, an 80 year-old who left his three Shenzhen apartments to his carer-cum-partner of 17 years.

The issue was that when he died Mr Liu was still legally married to his estranged wife and she challenged his will, arguing that he had no right to bequeath part of the shared family property to his ‘mistress’.

The case, which was adjudicated twice, came up for judgement at the Shenzhen Intermediate Peoples Court recently, which ruled that only Mr Liu’s wife could inherit the property. This superceded an earlier court ruling granting his newer partner, Ms Yang, a partial share of the property assets.

The case has aggregated over 220 million views on Sina Weibo, with spectators pretty much divided over the decision. Some feel that spouses shouldn’t be able to gift part of the family estate to another lover. But others have contended the contents of a will should be respected.

Some came at it from another angle – arguing that Ms Yang and Mr Liu had cohabited for 17 years and that it was clear that she was someone he wanted to provide for after his death.

Adding to the complexity of the case was that fact that Mr Liu had twice tried to divorce his wife but she had refused, taking him to court both times.

“So Mr Liu’s will is worthless?” remarked one bemused weibo user after the Shenzhen court handed down its verdict.

“Bad news for mistresses! We need to uphold family property rights,” wrote another netizen in support of the decision.

Traditionally many Chinese have avoided drawing up a will in the belief that it is tempting fate to think and talk about death. Less than 1% of China’s 220 million senior citizens were said to have written wills in a review released five years ago.

Government efforts to encourage people to plan ahead may be having some success, however. A recent whitepaper by the China Wills Association said there had been a 12% increase in the number of documents filed between 2019 and 2020. And among the younger generation, there is growing awareness of the practice, with six times more 30-and-40 year olds completing a final testament compared to three years ago.

Some experts have suggested that the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic is behind the sudden pick-up in numbers.

Another strand of the debate about the Liu-Yang dispute has drawn on questions about caring for China’s aging population and what duties children have to their elderly parents.

Mr Liu initially hired Ms Yang to clean his house and cook for him when he was in late middle-age. He was already living separately from his wife and five children and over time he and Ms Yang – who was about 20 years younger – began a romantic relationship.

As Liu aged and fell sick, she became his primary carer. He wrote two wills – one in 2016 and one in 2017 – both of which said the same thing. But he died before the successful conclusion of a second attempt to divorce his wife – meaning the two were still legally married at the date of his death in August 2017.

On the first occasion that Mrs Liu challenged her husband’s final wishes, the court granted Ms Yang one of the three apartments in his bequest, citing a law that protects women in cohabiting relationships.

But in the more recent second ruling the court decided utterly differently.

“The content and purpose of the two wills violated the law and public order and good customs, and seriously damaged the legitimate rights and interests of others,” the ruling claimed. It added that Ms Yang knew Mr Liu was married and that the two had “undermined other peoples’ family happiness and ignored social ethics”.

The latter rebuke particularly annoyed some netizens, who said it was wrong to bring interpretations of morality into the legal process.

“What? Now you need to be a saint to have your will respected?” asked one.

Interest in the case may have been greater because many people find themselves trapped in unhappy marriages by China’s inflexible divorce laws. Others are worried that they risk being disinherited if they hire a carer to look after an elderly parent.

“Mr Liu’s case reminds us how severe the issue of ‘empty nesters’ really is. Young people should reflect upon their treatment of their parents and try calling and visiting them more while they’re still with us,” reminded a contributor on a Baijiahao account called ‘Focus on Social Issues’.

In another individual posting, a lawyer argued on that it was “appropriate” for Mr Liu to leave something to Ms Yang. “According to Article 1131 of the Civil Code, an appropriate share of the estate may be given to a person, other than a successor, who has been a dependent of the now deceased, or to a person, other than a successor, who has made considerable contributions in supporting the now deceased,” he insisted.

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