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Estranged siblings challenged will of sister who died of cancer

Estranged siblings challenged will of sister who died of cancer

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 14 Feb 2020
Author: K.C. Vijayan

They were not told of her illness or death; judge upholds will which benefited wife of youngest brother the most.

A woman with terminal cancer, who was estranged from her elderly mother and several siblings, insisted that they were not to be told of her illness.

The shock on learning of her death a month after it happened in 2017 sparked a court challenge of her will in which the wife of her youngest brother gained the most.

District Judge Yarni Loi, however, upheld the will, saying there was "nothing irrational" about it, given the "sibling estrangements and family dynamics".

The Family Court judge, in decision grounds last month, found there was no undue influence on the woman by her youngest brother and his wife, who helped to look after her when she was ill.

"Whilst it is unfortunate that the siblings had their 'reunion' in court over their late sister's will, it is my hope that the family can find closure over the passing of their late sister, try to understand each other a bit better, forgive if possible, and move on peacefully from here," said the judge.

She added: "When family differences arise, keeping silent, building walls and talking through lawyers may not be the best ways to communicate, and may result in greater misunderstanding and unhappiness." All names in the judgment were redacted.

The dead woman, 53, was divorced and had seven siblings. She was a restaurant supervisor and her main asset was a Housing Board flat in Serangoon.

She did her will one month before she died on Jan 26, 2017, bequeathing one-third of her estate to her youngest brother's wife.

The remaining two-thirds were to be distributed among her mother and six siblings under Muslim inheritance law.

The youngest brother and his wife, through their lawyers Mohamed Baiross and Mohamed Faizal Abdul Hamid, had applied for a court declaration to validate her will.

Seven people were named as defendants in the suit: the mother and six siblings.

Three siblings did not contest the will, and the remaining three siblings filed a defence and counterclaim through their respective lawyers John Tay and Joseph James. The youngest brother and his wife were the two plaintiffs.

Among the trio who contested the will is a sister based in the United States.

They alleged that their late sister was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer on Dec 14, 2016, and died slightly more than a month later. Hence, she could not have had the mental capacity to execute the 2016 will, or she was unduly influenced by the plaintiffs, among other things.

The youngest brother testified that his late sister had wanted to give him all her assets because he was close to her and had helped to take care of her.

But he urged her to seek legal advice on Muslim inheritance laws. She did, and bequeathed one-third of her assets to his wife.

The court heard the dead woman had another sister who also lived in the US. When she was diagnosed with the cancer in December 2016, she told this younger sister, who flew to Singapore to spend time with her.

She made her and their youngest brother promise not to inform their mother and other siblings about her illness.

The duo believed their mother's ill health could have been the reason their late sister did not want her to know.

As for the other siblings, she did not want them to know because they had fallen out in early 2016 over the care of their ailing mother.

The judge said not informing their "mother and other siblings of her death may not have been the kindest or the wisest decision".

The unknowing siblings were shocked and devastated when they found out from a third party.

"I can hardly imagine the depth of the shock, anguish and grief the mother and these other siblings must have felt when they heard the news," the judge said.

"However, I find the allegations they have raised to challenge her will are based largely on hearsay, opinion and suspicion.

"I am satisfied... their late sister had the mental capacity to execute the will, knew of and approved the will, and executed the will of her own volition," she ruled.


Past cases of will disputes

In ruling on the case of a terminal cancer victim who was estranged from her family members, a Family Court judge referred to two past cases heard in 2013 and 2016, among others.

In the 2013 case, the testator, T, had executed a will two weeks before dying of cancer in May 2009, appointing the plaintiff-nephew with whom he had a close relationship as the sole executor and beneficiary of his entire estate.

Two of T's siblings challenged the will, arguing that it was not in his nature to make a will and that the circumstances leading up to the execution of the will were suspicious, among other things.

The judge rejected their arguments and upheld T's will, finding that it was rational and that the defendants had not cited sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of testamentary capacity.

The 2016 case involved the estate of an 88-year-old matriarch, S, who died in March 2013 leaving behind four children, including her elder son, whose two children were the defendants, and her favourite younger son, who was the plaintiff.

In 2002, she had executed a will under which the elder son's two children, the defendants, would each receive a property.

However, the defendants were written out of her latest 2012 will, where the plaintiff was named as the sole executor and principal beneficiary of her estate.

The defendants argued that S did not have testamentary capacity to execute the 2012 will, having been diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and treated for depression from August 2006.

The trial judge disagreed with the defendants based on the evidence and upheld the will.

K.C. Vijayan

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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