Man left $8m house to charity and not relatives, Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

Man left $8m house to charity and not relatives

Charity begins at home, as the adage goes, but a big gift to an endowment fund in Singapore that involved a house and a contested will turns that notion on its head.

It should all have been straightforward: An anonymous donor who died in 2018 stated in his will that his house in a prime estate would go to a charity of his choice – the National University Hospital Endowment Fund. The house is estimated to be worth about $8 million based on similar homes that are on sale in the estate.

All seemed clear but the donation in the will signed in 2006 hit a roadblock because the stated charity no longer existed in that name after having undergone two significant changes and eventually becoming the NUHS Fund.

The gift was supposed to be handed to the charity after the man’s widow, who continued to live in the house after his death, died in 2020. The couple had a son and grandchildren but none of them were named as beneficiaries in the man’s will.

The man’s former daughter-in-law, who is the sole surviving manager of his estate, then filed a claim to contest the donation, arguing that the gift had lapsed because the man’s intended charity no longer existed. If so, the house would go to the man’s son.

But the High Court upheld the man’s final wish and ruled that his donation would go to the new entity, the NUHS Fund, because it is the successor to the previous charity and that its funds are also being used for the same charitable purposes.

Justice Kwek Mean Luck noted that even if the old fund had ceased to exist, anyone reading the “gift clause” in the man’s will would agree that the donation was meant for its charitable purposes. And as the same charitable mission continued through its successor, the NUHS Fund, the gift had not lapsed and the house would go to the new entity.

This landmark ruling will have significant impact on how similar gift clauses should be drafted in wills as it was the first time the High Court had adjudicated on such a case here.

Here are three important points to note:

Make your intention clear

Have a will so that you pass on your assets to your chosen beneficiaries. More importantly, if you make your wishes clear, it is hard for anyone to challenge your will.

In this case, the man was absolutely clear on what he wanted because he specifically prohibited the sale of his house during the lifetime of his widow. 

“Upon the demise of my said wife, my trustees shall vest the said property to the National University Hospital Endowment Fund."

All his money and other assets were given to his widow after he died.

When she died in 2020, there was apparently over $200,000 left in the bank account. As she did not make any will, these funds and all her assets would go to her son under intestacy rules.

Name of beneficiary and charity

Spell the names of your beneficiaries correctly. That said, a misnaming or mere mistake on the name will not render your gift void.

For example, if you did not state the precise legal or registered name of a charity, the gift can still go to a body that matches the description. But things can become slightly complicated when the charity named in the will has ceased to exist.

However, as Justice Kwek noted in the case involving the NUHS Fund, the focus should be on substance over form, especially if there is a successor to carry on the same mission of the old charity. “A mere change in name or an alteration in objects will not mean that a charity has ceased to exist,” he said.

Specific beneficiary

If you intended to give something to a particular relative, but that person is no longer alive when your will comes into force, the gift will lapse.

This rule applies to charities as well if there is a clause that states that the gift is intended for a specific charity and is not one for general charitable purposes.

In upholding the wishes stated in wills, Justice Kwek noted that the court “will not strain the will” just for the purpose of gaining money for charities and deprive other potential beneficiaries of their shares.

If the gift contains detailed terms that express a clear intention that the gift is exclusively for specific persons, particular structures or a specific locality, the limited character of the gift should not be ignored, he added.

Professor Tang Hang Wu, Singapore’s leading expert on social and charity cases, said donors can avoid similar legal disputes if they make their wishes to donate clearer in their wills.

As a gesture to fulfil the donor’s wish of remaining anonymous, Prof Tang, who acted for the NUHS Fund in this case, asked the High Court not to release the name of the man. It was only disclosed that his house was donated “in memory of LSK”.