By Yao Minji | 2012-4-1 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
Illustration by Zhou Tao/Shanghai Daily
Photo by Zhou Tao
QINGMING Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day) is dedicated to respect for the dearly departed, but some families' day of reverence is marred by distress and disputes over relatives' wills and distribution of property. Yao Minji reports.
In China, when a parent proposes writing a will or discusses dividing property among heirs, the heirs are supposed to and often do say, "No, stop that kind of talk. You are not dying and you will live a very long time."
Sometimes the discussion ends there and is never resumed, which can result in problems.
Many Chinese still don't feel comfortable talking about death (si), which is believed to bring death itself closer, an unwritten rule and tradition that goes back thousands of years. Even the number four, which sounds similar to death, is considered unlucky and items are never given in fours. A clock (zhong) is never given as a gift because zhong can also mean end.
Still, reality is unavoidable, and an increasing number of Chinese people are seeking legal assistance in writing or certifying wills. It is still a very small number compared with the aging population.
"In general, we receive more cases related to wills than before, but many of the clients are well-off middle-aged people rather than the aging and elderly as one might expect," Wu Dong, senior partner with M&A Law Firm in Shanghai.
"Some of my elder clients told me that they wouldn't want to produce a will or even if they have one, they would not announce it, because they don't want the children to feel uncomfortable about it," Wu tells Shanghai Daily.
Discomfort is universally understandable in that children may feel the will is unfair and think the parent prefers other children over them. In China especially, many people rich or poor feel uncomfortable talking so blatantly about money, as in a will.
Many people die without a will, while others write their will in secret without seeking legal assistance, causing many problems and strange cases in recent years, such as one involving 52-year-old local primary school teacher Chen.
As the annual Tomb Sweeping Day approaches, Chen is still in no mood to arrange the annual family tomb-sweeping outing. She has been preoccupied with the will of her late father, who passed away last November just before he turned 76.
Chen had supported her father financially and emotionally - he lived with her family for the past 12 years and Chen also paid his medical bills, a big concern for many elderly people in China.
Chen's three siblings visited and occasionally contributed money for their father's medical and other costs.
In return, her father left a will stating that his savings and other belongings be divided equally among the three siblings, and that his apartment be left for Chen. The apartment is far more valuable than his savings and the rest of the estate put together. But the will has not been executed. It is not legitimate in all respects.
Chen's father only owned half the apartment, which he had owned with his wife, who deceased. The other half ownership is to be divided among Chen's father, Chen herself and her three siblings, according to China's Law of Succession.
That means, without her siblings' consent, she cannot take the house.
"It doesn't make sense to me. My father is head of family and he shall have the right to decide everyone's belongings," Chen tells Shanghai Daily, confused and furious. "Even if some parts of the apartment belong to my brothers and sister, my father shall have the entire right to decide where their parts go, and he has made the decision. Why doesn't the law support the man's deathbed wish?"
Even in places like Shanghai, where legal awareness and legal literacy are ranked among the top in the country, people are still surprised in probate court all the time when it comes to inheritance and wills.