The death of a loved one is never easy. Amidst the emotional stress, there are some legal and administrative steps that you need to follow. Like most other countries, the law sets out specific steps and procedures in Singapore. Even before hiring a probate lawyer, some things need to be done.
In this article, we will discuss the steps that are required to comply with the legalities surrounding the death of a non-Muslim citizen in Singapore.
(If the deceased is a Muslim citizen, the administration of their estate is governed by the Muslim Law and the Administration of Muslim Law Act. Islamic inheritance law, Faraid, applies.)
The information in this article will help you navigate what you need to do during an emotionally difficult time.
(1) Establish the cause of death
When someone dies, it is essential to establish the cause of death.
If your loved one passes away at home, the first person to call is a doctor. The doctor will be responsible for certifying and reporting the death. The doctor will issue a certificate of the cause of death.
If the doctor is satisfied that the death was due to natural causes, they will certify the death. If the death is sudden, the cause is unnatural, or the doctor cannot establish the cause of death, they will contact the police.
The police will investigate to ascertain the cause of death. If you cannot get hold of a doctor, you can also contact the police first.
If the deceased was in a hospital under medical care at the time of passing, the attending doctor will handle the process and report the death.
(2) Register the death
To register the death, the doctor or the police will need the following:
- The deceased's full names.
- The birth gender of the deceased.
- The deceased's date of birth.
- Identity document number.
The doctor will note the date, time, location, and cause of the death.
All deaths in Singapore must be registered within 24 hours.
In situations where the police see the body, they can have the body removed to the mortuary, where a pathologist can determine the cause of death, if necessary.
An autopsy is not compulsory in Singapore. If the police report the death to the coroner, the coroner can investigate to decide if an autopsy is required. The decision depends on the medical issues or any injuries on the deceased's body.
If the autopsy report reveals any unnatural cause of death, the police will investigate further.
Alternatively, the coroner can collect the body from the deceased's home or the hospital.
(3) Obtain a death certificate
Once the doctor certifies the death online, it is registered, and you can download the death certificate via the MyLegacy portal.
To download the certificate, you need:
- The deceased's NRIC, FIN, or passport number.
- The death document number, which the doctor will provide.
- Date of death.
Obtaining a death certificate is critical since it is your legal proof of death. Without the certificate, you cannot proceed with any steps necessary to arrange a funeral and settle the deceased's estate.
(4) Arrange the funeral
Funeral arrangements are deeply personal and often depend on the cultural and religious preferences of the deceased and the family.
Most families choose to engage a funeral director to help with the funeral arrangements. These professionals provide guidance on cremation, burial, and other funeral services based on the deceased's wishes, and the family's preferences.
A funeral director will help with the following:
- Arrange for collection of the body from home or the hospital mortuary.
- Send the body for embalming if required.
- Deliver the body to the location of the wake.
If the family does not have sufficient funds to pay for a funeral, they have a few options.
- They can be reimbursed from the deceased's estate - the process depends on whether the estate is worth more or less than S$50,000.
- The deceased's beneficiaries can claim a reimbursement from the deceased's unnominated CPF monies.
- Beneficiaries can pay from life insurance payouts.
- A legal representative of the deceased's estate or a joint account holder can approach the bank to receive a reimbursement after the completion of the settlement process.
After the funeral, you must address matters related to the deceased's estate, debts, and other financial affairs.
(5) Find the will
If the deceased left a will, the executor named in the will should apply for a grant of probate. This grant confirms the validity of the will. It also gives the executor the authority to manage the deceased's estate and distribute the assets according to the will.
The executor plays a crucial role in ensuring the deceased's wishes are carried out. Their duties include distributing assets, settling debts, and handling any remaining legal matters.
If the deceased did not leave a valid will, family members can apply for letters of administration. A letter of administration gives the applicant the power to administer the deceased's estate.
(6) Apply for probate or administration
Applying for a grant probate or a letter of administration is an important legal step, and you will need assistance from a specialist probate lawyer. The process can be complex, requiring many documents. A probate lawyer will help you apply for probate and collect, manage, and distribute the deceased's assets to the beneficiaries.
To apply for probate, you need the following:
- The original death certificate.
- The deceased's will.
- Proof of the executor's or the applicant's identity.
- A list of the deceased's assets, liabilities, and financial documents as proof, e.g. bank statements, insurance policies, etc.
- If relevant, employment details.
If there is no valid will, the Intestate Succession Act comes into play. The court will appoint the administrator to manage the deceased's estate and distribute the assets according to intestate succession laws. Generally, the administrator will be a close family member.
Intestate succession and applying for a letter of administration are technical. You will need the help of an experienced lawyer.
(7) Contact the necessary institutions
Once the executor receives the grant of probate, they should contact the necessary institutions to finalise the collection and distribution of assets.
Depending on the deceased's circumstances, it could include the following:
- Financial institutions where the deceased held accounts - check if there is money to withdraw, investments, automatic monthly payments, credit card payments, and so on.
- Insurance companies - inquire about life insurance or funeral policies.
- The deceased's employer - find out if there are any outstanding salaries or other payments due to the family.
- The Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board to release any CPF monies to the beneficiaries.
(8) Administer the estate
Once probate is granted, the executor can access the assets and settle any outstanding debts and claims. The executor must pay unpaid bills and loans and meet all financial obligations, such as outstanding taxes.
The executor must arrange for properties to be sold or transferred, vehicles to be transferred to new owners, claim insurance money, cancel paid subscriptions, terminate utility services where appropriate, and so on.
Once all the necessary matters are settled, the executor can distribute the assets to the beneficiaries according to the provisions in the will.
The assets will be distributed under the Intestate Succession Act if there is no valid will. The Act stipulates who is eligible to inherit and in what proportion.
(9) Take care of online accounts
These days, most people have an online presence that needs dealing with when the person passes away.
It is essential to manage the deceased's online identity to prevent abuse of the information. Ensure that personal information is removed from social media, close email and other online accounts and mobile applications.
Some social media platforms like Facebook have policies and procedures to deal with a deceased's account. You can follow the process to have the account deleted, or you can transform the account into a "memorialised" account.
Information "floating" online can easily be used for identity theft and other fraudulent acts.
Seek professional legal assistance
Dealing with the legal aspects of a loved one's passing is a daunting and emotionally stressful process. Just thinking about applying for probate and distributing assets can be overwhelming, and most families have no idea where to start.
However, with the correct information and guidance, you can successfully navigate these challenging times.
An experienced probate lawyer can guide you through all the steps to ensure you meet all the legal requirements to deal with the deceased's death and estate.
Besides minimising the stress of complying with the legalities, an experienced lawyer can save a significant amount of time in finalising the deceased's estate.