When someone dies and leaves a will, their property and possessions are distributed according to the terms of that will. The executor or their legal representative applies for a grant of probate, which gives them the power to do this.
When someone dies without a will, there is no direction for the distribution of their estate (their money, possessions, and personal effects) or people appointed to deal with it. The law steps in and provides a definitive framework in these cases.
There is a priority list of who can apply. The court order giving legal power to them is called a letter of administration. It’s similar to a grant of probate. The law also dictates who should have what from the deceased’s estate; it is not the administrator’s decision.
What is intestacy?
Intestacy is when someone dies without leaving a will, a valid will, or the will cannot be found.
A will names the people who can distribute the estate and specifies the beneficiaries. Without a will, there is a void, so Singaporean legislation (the Intestate Succession Act or ISA) dictates who can apply to administer the estate and which family members will benefit.
What are letters of administration?
Letters of administration are the mirror image of a grant of probate, a legal document authorising designated people to apply to administer the estate of a deceased family member, plus giving them the power to do so.
The term ‘probate’ is often used to cover any situation where someone has died, but it only refers to the scenario where the deceased has left a will. Where there is no valid will, the correct process and legal document are letters of administration, with just one or two defined exceptions.
A person who has applied to the court and has letters of administration is referred to as the administrator for that estate.
Who can apply to be an administrator?
In general terms, Section 18 of the Probate and Administration Act (PAA) states that the court may grant letters of administration to the deceased’s spouse or next of kin.
The Intestate Succession Act lists seven different classes of people in a strict and descending order of priority who may apply. These are:
- Nephews and nieces
- Uncles and aunts
Anyone under the age of 21 may not apply to be an administrator; however a guardian can make the application on their behalf. The grant of letters of administration will be made to their guardian.
A family member must have full mental capacity to apply for letters of administration.
The court can appoint up to four people to act as administrators, who must act in unison to administer the estate.
How to apply for letters of administration
A person doesn’t need to appoint a solicitor to act for them; they can apply to the Family Justice Courts themselves. A probate & administration toolkit is available from the Family Justice Court’s website to help do this.
If a family member appoints a solicitor to assist in the application for letters of administration, their fees are usually classified as a cost or expense to the estate and paid along with any debts before the administrator distributes the residue.
To apply for a grant of letters of administration, the family or their Solicitor needs to prepare certain documents:
- Service bureau form for application for letters of administration – this requires details of the applicant and the person who has died.
- Schedule of assets – this form details the deceased’s assets in Singapore and overseas and includes outstanding mortgages on any property. Finding this information may require contacting different financial institutions and can take time. Applicants should only do this after the application for the grant of letters of administration is accepted because most financial institutions usually require a certified copy of the court-approved application before they will release any information.
- Supporting documents – the deceased’s death certificate, divorce certificate (if applicable), and death certificates of any next of kin (if relevant) to illustrate the applicant’s status in the list and entitlement to apply.
Searches for existing probate applications and caveats
Applicants or their legal representatives must search for current probate applications or caveats on the deceased’s estate. There could also be other claims to the right to administer the estate.
The results of the search must be submitted with the other documents.
Submission of documents
All documents are submitted to the service bureau as soon as possible after someone has died. If the application is more than six months after the deceased passed away, there should be a statement explaining the reasons for the delay.
A supporting affidavit and administration oath must be filed within 14 days of the application. The affidavit confirms that the application details are correct and true, and the supporting oath is a statement that the applicant will faithfully administer the deceased’s estate. Both documents need to be sworn before a commissioner for oaths.
If the schedule of assets isn’t ready within two weeks, the supporting affidavit and the administration oath should still be filed within this timeframe.
The court needs to accept the documents; this usually takes anywhere from one week to a month. If there are any errors in the paperwork or things are missing, the court will reject the application, and the process will need to start again.
Extracting the grant
When the court approves the application, they issue an ‘order in terms’. The court normally contacts the applicant by letter requesting they extract the grant. The applicant does this by submitting a form.
There is also a requirement to conduct one last caveat and probate search, the results of which must be attached to the form. At this point, the grant of letters of administration is issued, officially allowing the applicant to administer the estate as administrator.
Distributing the estate
Section 7 of the ISA defines the entitlement order for an administrator to follow. An administrator is required to pay taxes and debts first, then allocate what remains in the following order:
- Spouse if no children
- Spouse and children in an equal split
- Children if no surviving spouse
- Spouse and parents, if no children
- Parents if no spouse or children
- Siblings and any siblings’ children if no spouse, children, or parents
- Grandparents if no spouse, children, parents, or siblings
- Uncles and aunts, if no spouse, children, parents, siblings, or grandparents
If there are no surviving relatives, then the residue of the deceased’s estate passes to the government.
Anomalies – situations where the deceased has left a will, and there are letters of administration
There are occasions where there is a valid will, but the executors refuse to act – this is described as renouncing their right – or they are incapable of acting.
An executor may have pre-deceased, that is, passed away before the deceased or died during the interim period following their family member’s death, and before they have applied for a grant of probate.
Frequently asked questions
Should I rely on the laws of intestacy, or is it better to write a will?
Writing a will makes it easier and less stressful for family members to administer your estate and manage your affairs after you have died.
Solicitors will advise that it is better to write a will because the distribution of money and possessions under the ISA may not be to the people you want.
Do I have to be an administrator?
If you are on the designated list of people who can apply for letters of administration but don’t wish to be an administrator, you can renounce your right.
This can be done verbally to the court at the grant of letters of administration hearing or by making an affidavit. An affidavit is a sworn statement of your renouncement attested by a commissioner for oaths.
What is an inheritance certificate?
An inheritance certificate applies to the estates of Muslims who die in Singapore. The Syariah Court in Singapore issues inheritance certificates to facilitate the proper distribution of the deceased’s estate in line with Muslim law.
The estates of Muslims who die in Singapore are administered under the rules set out in the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), which the Syariah Court oversees.
To conclude, it can be complicated and confusing to apply for letters of administration, and then distribute the deceased’s estate in line with the provisions of the ISA, especially during a time of grief. Consequently, many people appoint a solicitor to act for them.
Writing a will is always a better option than intestacy. Many people make incorrect assumptions about who will inherit their property after death; a will leaves no margin for error.