Ten Common Handwritten Will Mistakes

Handwritten wills i.e., holographic wills are valid in Hong Kong and in most jurisdictions around the world. Perhaps the most famous holographic will was that of Napoleon Bonaparte, who seemingly had plenty of time on his hands while exiled on the island of St Helena in 1821. He wrote a whopping five long pages and numerous codicils by hand, which was the requirement under French law for a valid will, in the absence of a notary. After praising his loved ones and lashing out at each of his political enemies, he bequeathed to over 7,500 beneficiaries the contents of his entire estate, down to a pair of slippers. The beneficiaries were not only his immediate family members but everyone from his General Montholon (2 million francs) to regular soldiers (100 francs each) in his army. It took the executors of his will 40 years to complete their tasks. 

Handwriting your own will is likely to be easier than the task that Napoleon undertook, but here are some of the more common (but not all of the) pitfalls to avoid:

1. Not appointing a willing executor

There will be no one to execute your wishes in this instance and this will lead to administrative delays. The beneficiary entitled to your residuary estate has first priority to apply to be your executor by virtue of rule 19 of the Non Contentious Probate Rules in Hong Kong where there is no named executor willing to take on this role. Your residuary estate is the whole sum of your estate after deduction of your debts, taxes, funeral, legal and administrative expenses and distribution of your cash and specific gifts to your beneficiaries.

2. Being too specific or not being specific enough

You may bequeath your Rolex Explorer II watch to your son but you own two Rolex watches at the time of your death, none of which is the Explorer II. You may state clearly “I bequeath my grand piano to my cousin.” but it transpires that you have three cousins (who coincidentally all play the piano up to grade 8 level) at the time of your death. These are examples of gifts that are too specific or not specific enough.

3. Not updating your will 

If you marry, divorce, enter into a committed relationship or any combination thereof, there may be significant impacts on the validity of parts of your will. Some committed relationships that may be recognised under overseas laws are not recognised in Hong Kong. It is important to review your will at regular intervals in order to take stock of significant changes in your relationships and assets.

4. Writing only one will when you have substantial assets in another jurisdiction

The legal concept of domicile may be different from your birthplace, nationality and/or jurisdiction where you have permanent residency. Your domicile at the time of death affects your will. You may write a will in Hong Kong that can be overridden due to laws in another jurisdiction that do not allow you to leave out certain beneficiaries, for instance. It is important to consider the laws of the countries where your substantial assets are located.

5. Writing wills in every jurisdiction you have assets in but inadvertently revoking some of the wills

You may have carefully considered all your worldly assets and handwritten your wills in accordance with where your assets are located. One common pitfall is not making reference to your other international wills, such that your last will and testament referring to your assets in Canada may inadvertently revoke your prior last will and testament referring to the distribution of your assets in Hong Kong.

6. Improper execution of the will

In Hong Kong, two witnesses are required when you sign your will. They and their spouses may not be your beneficiaries. Your executor may be a witness to your will but again, this executor should not be a beneficiary if such executor is to be a witness to your will. In the absence of proper execution, the court must be satisfied that there is no reasonable doubt your purported will satisfies your testamentary wishes.    

7. Forgetting to appoint guardians including temporary guardians for your minor children

If both parents pass away, minor children without appointed guardians will become wards of the Social Welfare Department. It is important to consider appointing temporary guardians who reside in Hong Kong in the event that permanent guardians are overseas, again to avoid having children becoming wards of the Social Welfare Department during the time it takes permanent guardians to arrive in Hong Kong.

8. Forgetting to include back up beneficiaries, executors and guardians

No one knows with certainty when their time will come. It is entirely possible to outlive one’s beneficiaries, executors and/or appointed guardians, especially the longer that one lives. Some care needs to be taken to think through some possible alternatives in the event that these persons predecease you or refuse to act as your executor or as guardians of your children.

9. Keeping the will in your own safety deposit box at the bank

This is a very safe place to keep your will but is it too safe? In Hong Kong, singly and jointly held safety deposit boxes require a “Certificate for Necessity of Inspection of Bank Deposit Box”  issued by the Home Affairs Department before a deceased’s safety deposit box may be inspected. A bank official and two public officers authorised by the Secretary for Home Affairs must be present during the inspection. Keeping one’s will in one’s own bank safety deposit box (even jointly held) leads to administrative delay and this should be weighed against the security afforded by a bank safekeeping your will.

10. Not signing your will

Many people take the time to carefully put together a will and then trip up on the final step – they omit to sign the will properly or put off signing the will. This may be due to any number of reasons – not prioritising this important final step (life often gets in the way) or even due to an inability to find witnesses for the will. Unfortunately, an unsigned will is an invalid will.

The legal requirements for a validly written will are both easy and difficult to fulfill – easy in the sense that a handwritten will showing intention and capacity signed by an adult which is properly witnessed is a legal document in Hong Kong, yet difficult because there are some common pitfalls that many a do-it-yourselfer has failed to avoid.

Beat Napoleon Bonaparte and have your will professionally drafted. To celebrate the inauguration of our groundbreaking Elder Law Practice (the first of its kind in Hong Kong), we are proud to relaunch our hugely popular FreeWill initiative, an opportunity for Hong Kongers to have their wills prepared for a nominal donation to a registered charity. To find out more, visit our FreeWill campaign page.

Disclaimer: This article is for reference only. Nothing herein shall be construed as legal advice, whether generally or for any specific person. Oldham, Li & Nie shall not be held liable for any loss and/or damage incurred by any person acting as a result of the materials contained in this article.