The death of a family member sets in process a whole chain of events and legal requirements. It can be hard to cope with at such a difficult time; managing the personal affairs and estate of someone who has died in line with the law is also not optional.
There are various legal formalities necessary to have a funeral, then distribute the estate and possessions of the deceased.
Some people appoint a lawyer to act for them, but they may only handle the application for a grant of probate if there is a valid will, or letters of administration if there is no will. Before you even get to that point, there are plenty of other things to do.
Obtain the medical certificate or certificate of cause of death
Sometimes also referred to as the death certificate, the certificate of cause of death (CCOD) is required to register the death and obtain a formal death certificate, without which there can be no funeral.
If the person dies in hospital, the doctor will register the death online.
Death at home
If someone dies at home, the family must call a doctor to confirm and certify the death.
If the death was due to natural causes, a doctor can certify and register the death online, allowing the family to download the death certificate. If the cause of death is unknown or the doctor is concerned about the circumstances of death, they will refer the matter to the police.
Doctors can issue manual certificates if they cannot register online in situations where the cause of death was natural; this is called confirmation of death. The doctor will register the death online as soon as they can.
The doctor or hospital will require specific details about the deceased to register the death.
The next of kin must produce the deceased person’s ID – that could be their passport, NRIC or FIN card. They should also give the doctor the following information:
- The deceased’s full name and any other names they were known by
- The birth gender of the deceased
- The deceased’s date of birth
The doctor will know the date, time of death, and the location where the death occurred, which are also required.
It is a legal requirement in Singapore that all deaths are registered within 24 hours of passing. When someone has died in hospital, the death is automatically certified and registered by the doctor, so the next of kin is not required to do anything. The same applies if a person dies at home from natural causes and the death is certified by a doctor.
The family do not need to register the death themselves. They can obtain a digital certificate from My Legacy, the Singapore government agency.
Funeral arrangements and company choice are personal matters for the next of kin and their family. The death registration allows the process of arranging the funeral and organising a burial or cremation.
Looking for the will
If there is a will, this needs to be located so that the next of kin or their appointed legal representative can apply for a grant of probate.
If the will cannot be found or the current will is not valid, then a different process applies called a grant of letters of administration. This runs parallel to probate, but some critical fundamental differences exist.
Grant of probate
If the deceased has left a valid will, the document will appoint two or more people to act as executors. The executors have the power to apply for a grant of probate to distribute the deceased’s estate in line with their wishes.
Whilst the nominated executors have the power to apply for a grant of probate, they do not have the legal right to distribute the estate until probate is granted.
What if there is no will?
If there is no will or valid will, the next of kin or a close family member can apply for letters of administration.
Like a grant of probate, this legal document gives the applicant the power to administer someone’s affairs after death. However, letters of administration differ from a grant of probate in that there is no will or named beneficiaries, so legislation dictates who should have what.
An executor or administrator can appoint a solicitor to act for them to apply for a grant of probate or letters of administration. That solicitor can then carry administer the estate if required, or the executor/administrator can do this themselves.
Letting people know
It’s usually necessary to tell people that someone has died to help regulate their affairs. This includes banks and other financial institutions, utility companies, and any other organisation involving the deceased, like their employer. There may not be a financial element to their connection.
Usually, bank accounts are frozen at this point, and the executor or administrator won’t be able to gain access until they have a grant of probate or letters of administration.
Insurance companies will typically pay out some money on death with the production of the death certificate, but the bulk of the proceeds of any life cover or other policies is usually only released on production of the grant of probate or letters of administration.
Writing to organisations and finding out the value of the deceased’s assets is required before submitting an application for probate or administration. This is why some people find it helpful too instruct a lawyer to act for them.
Applying for probate
Whether an executor or their appointed representative applies for probate, various essential documents and details are needed. These include:
- The original death certificate, not a photocopy.
- The will of the deceased.
- Documentation so the executor or the applicant, in the case of an intestacy, can prove their identity.
- Financial documents which capture the deceased’s assets and liabilities which act as a starting point for the solicitor to contact different organisations.
- Employment details, if relevant.
- Any other bodies or institutions who need to be informed of the death and with whom there may be a financial connection.
- If applicable, a Muslim Inheritance Certificate from the Syariah Court.
The Duties of an executor or administrator
The role of the executor is crafted in legislation and regulation. An executor must gather an accurate list of the deceased’s assets, arrange the funeral, apply, and extract the grant of probate.
Tax, bank loans, a mortgage, and other debts must all be paid for before the rest of the estate can be distributed. Then the remainder must be shared according to the terms of the will.
The process for an administrator is similar, but the estate distribution must follow the priority order set out in the Intestate Succession Act (ISA).
Executors and administrators must act honestly and do have to account for the distribution of the deceased’s estate. They can be held liable for not fulfilling their duties.
It’s always worth taking the time to understand, at least in outline, the legal process, and requirements for what happens after someone’s death; it makes it far less stressful when you understand the steps and timelines involved. The best help anyone can give to their loved ones is to write a will which is kept up to date and stored somewhere safe.
Whilst you can apply for probate yourself it remains a lengthy process with lots of documentation. An experienced lawyer can help apply for a grant of probate, and their advice can be essential if the deceased is intestate.
Frequently asked questions
Is it necessary to appoint a lawyer to apply for a grant of probate or letters of administration?
Professional representation isn’t a legal requirement, but it can be helpful as the process is complicated and an additional burden at a time of grief.
The cost of legal advice is treated as an expense against the deceased’s estate, so fees and other debts and liabilities are deducted before the proceeds are distributed.
How can I best help my family before I die?
Write a will and keep it updated. A will ensures that the people you want to inherit benefit from your estate, and the process of obtaining a grant of probate is the quickest and most straightforward option.
Review your will regularly or when you have a change in circumstances. You can appoint a family member as executor or the solicitor who drew up the will.
What happens to CPF Funds?
CPF funds are distributed in line with the deceased’s CPF nomination. The CPF board contacts the nominees within 15 days of the date they are notified of the death.
If no nomination has been made, the Public Trustee administers CPF monies and assets and distributes them to the deceased’s family in line with the intestacy laws.