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Nov 21, 2016

Gu waited until after his 90th birthday to decide that he wanted to make a will. Deciding what to leave — and whom to leave it to — is something few Chinese people ever put down in writing, but Gu has seen too many of his friends pass away, only for their children to squabble over left-behind possessions.

Drafting wills is still relatively uncommon in China, but it’s a growing trend. “Twenty years ago, people didn’t have any awareness of wills — nobody knew what they were,” Gu tells Sixth Tone. Talking about death, let alone acknowledging it in writing, is considered taboo in China. “Writing a will sounds like I’m cursing myself,” he says.

Leaning on a walking stick, Gu is in declining health. He’s going deaf, and his eyesight is worsening. He lives with his daughter’s family, and his three sons come to visit him from time to time.

Gu wants to leave his Beijing apartment to his daughter, and with China’s boom in real estate prices, the house is worth millions of yuan, or hundreds of thousands of dollars. “My lawyer said I should definitely write a will,” he says. Citing fears that his sons would object to his decision and try to persuade him otherwise, Gu was only willing to give his surname. He’s less concerned about the family fighting after his death because with a will, there will be no use arguing. 

Several elderly people write wills by hand at the China Will Registration Center in Beijing, Oct. 18, 2016. Wang Lianzhang/Sixth Tone

Traditionally, the inheritance is mostly split among sons, but many Chinese no longer adhere to patriarchal views of family to the same extent as in decades past. With China’s aging society, the proportion of people in their final years is greater than ever. And with Chinese people getting richer, more inheritances are worth fighting over, even in court.

According to the Beijing High People’s Court, the proportion of family disputes in which the primary concern is how to divvy up an inheritance is rising. In nearly three-quarters of those cases, the absence of a will was the cause of the quarrel. According to China Judgments Online, an incomplete database of Chinese court cases, there have been at least 10,000 civil suits relating to inheritance every year since 2014.

People my age think death is far away from us, but that’s not true.

Retired teacher Wang is in a similar situation to Gu’s. The 62-year-old has a son and a daughter, and she owns two houses. She tells Sixth Tone that she wants to break the unwritten rule of leaving everything to the eldest male child. “My son thinks he will get the two apartments after I pass away, but I want to treat my children equally,” Wang says. She declined to give her full name because she doesn’t want her son to find out about her intentions.

“People my age think death is far away from us, but that’s not true,” says Wang, whose husband passed away two years ago in an accident. This summer, Wang was diagnosed with hypertension and heart disease, and now she’s afraid she might die of a sudden heart attack.

Wang brings up the well-known case of Hou Yaowen, the vice chairman of an artists’ association who died of a heart attack in 2007 and had not left a will. The ensuing fight between Hou’s brother and Hou’s two daughters over the inheritance — which media estimated to be worth around 80 million yuan ($11.6 million) — was drawn out for years and ended in a court case. “Although the case ended with a reconciliation, it left deep scars on the family,” Wang says. “All of them were victims because there was no will.”

Hou Yaowen’s daughter weeps in court, June 4, 2010. Hou’s brother and two daughters became embroiled in an inheritance dispute that took years to resolve. Ouyang Xiaofei/VCG

Wang decided to write up her own will after watching a few television shows, such as the recently suspended reality show “Agony Uncles,” that discussed the topic. She has yet to put pen to paper, though, because she doesn’t know how to write a document that is legally binding.

This is a conundrum for many Chinese elderly, as strict regulations on wills mean they have to be written in a certain way to be legal and to avoid questions of authenticity. According to the Beijing High People’s Court, around 60 percent of wills are found invalid. And writing a will requires a witness, as well as a doctor to certify that the person is in full control of their mental faculties.

We think the gap between us and developed countries is in the cars we drive and the houses we live in, but actually it’s in the awareness of legal and human rights.

Chen Kai, a lawyer at Zhongkai Law Firm in Beijing, decided to tackle this problem directly. In 2013, he founded the China Will Registration Center, a nonprofit that helps elderly people draft handwritten testaments, one of five types of wills admissible in China. Currently, Chen’s organization has some 40,000 wills in its archive and has advised thousands of people.

The idea for the center came to Chen during a trip to Australia in 2007. He was astonished when he learned that most older Australians had wills. “We think the gap between us and developed countries is in the cars we drive and the houses we live in, but actually it’s in the awareness of legal and human rights,” he says.

Chen’s center provides all the necessary services to ensure that the wills it helps produce are valid. A psychiatrist is available to provide documentation of sound mental state, and they will even record a video of the person answering questions to corroborate their professional evaluation.

Additionally, staff make sure that the wills are written in language that is legally binding. “Wills carry high risks,” Chen says. “Once someone has passed away, there is no way to correct any errors.”

The need for legally admissible wills came to the public’s attention after the death of the famous painter Xu Linlu in 2011. Xu had written a will wherein he left his entire fortune — including a collection of paintings estimated at the time to be worth about 2 billion yuan — to his wife. He had even taken a photo of himself and his wife holding the will. Unfortunately, there was no psychiatrist’s statement and it had been written in calligraphy, raising questions of its authenticity. When Xu’s son sued his 95-year-old mother and lost, he appealed the ruling. A final verdict has yet to be announced.

One of Xu Linlu’s daughters (middle), who was sued by her brother (not pictured), addresses the judge as the woman sitting next to her tries to calm her, Oct. 8, 2012. Pu Dongfeng/VCG

On a weekday in October, several elderly people have come to the will registration center to stipulate what should be done with their estate. In the lobby of Chen’s office, eight elderly people sit around a table, writing their testaments on sheets of paper so carefully that they almost look like primary school pupils who are learning how to write. To complete the picture, a staff member walks from one person to the next, commenting on their handwriting and reminding them to write clearly. “Be patient, you have plenty of time,” she says.

One couple came in together. The husband, surnamed Huang, tells Sixth Tone he decided to make a will not only for his children, but also for his wife. “When I proposed to her, I promised that I would take care of her for the rest of her life,” he says.

As a lawyer, Chen believes that a will serves a purpose beyond preventing disputes. “The fundamental principle is to encourage everyone to think about the safety of their property and about relationships between family members,” he says. As an example, Chen adds that a will can specify that a child’s spouse is not a beneficiary, meaning that in the event of divorce, the property will stay in the family. The uptick in people writing wills reflects a rising awareness of the legal system, Chen says, and it means outmoded tradition is being successfully overridden.

Chinese people might be warming up to wills, but the law has yet to catch up. Chen and other legal experts think China’s succession law, promulgated in 1985 and since unchanged, is in dire need of an update.

Professor Yang Lixin, deputy director of the Chinese Civil Law Society, is a member of a draft proposal team. He tells Sixth Tone that the current one is ill-suited to accommodate all of the physical and financial possessions that have been created in China since the early days of the market economy in the 1980s. “We used to have a planned economy in which residents were generally poor and rarely had properties to inherit,” Yang explains.

Despite legislation that lags behind, Chen has an optimistic outlook for his registration center. “I hope we can archive 10 million wills by 2024. If I could achieve that, I think I should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” he quips.

(Header image: E+/VCG)