Living in Singapore is on many US citizens’ bucket lists for good reason. From incredible architecture and expatriate-friendly tax laws to a distinctly-unique local culture and one-of-a-kind natural ecosystem, Singapore offers lifestyle opportunities that are available few other places in the world. Singapore’s legal system is unique as well; and for expatriates, one area where this is of particular importance is the estate planning process.
If you are in the process of making preparations to move to Singapore, it is best to address your estate plan before you go. As with the other aspects of picking up and moving to a foreign country, taking care of your estate plan now will ensure that you (and your family) do not run into unexpected issues once your plane leaves the ground. If you are already living in Singapore, it is certainly not too late, and the topics discussed below are relevant to you as well.
What Do US Citizens Moving to (or Living in) Singapore Need to Know about Estate Planning?
Although the estate planning laws in the US and Singapore are very different, the overall estate planning process is fairly similar whether you are planning to distribute assets located in the US or abroad. In general, the key is to be as clear and comprehensive as possible, and to ensure that your various estate planning documents do not conflict with one another. However, the cross-border nature of estate planning as a US expatriate does raise some unique considerations, and you need to make sure you are aware of these considerations when making decisions about your plan.
1. Which Country’s (or State’s) Law Governs Your Estate Plan?
One of the most fundamental issues in cross-border estate planning is the issue of governing law: Will your estate plan be governed by US law, Singapore law, or both? If you own property in both countries, “both” is probably the correct answer.
As a general rule, the administration of a person’s estate is subject to the laws of the jurisdiction in which he or she dies. However, the transfer of real estate is generally governed by the law in which the property is located. So, if you live in Singapore and still own a home in the US, you can see how things can quickly start to get complicated.
2. Preparing an Estate Plan for the US and an Estate Plan for Singapore
To avoid these types of issues (as well as the issue of “intestate succession,” which we will cover below), it will often make sense for US expatriates living in Singapore to prepare estate plans under both countries’ laws. In other words, you will have an estate plan governed by US law that covers your US assets, and you will have an estate plan governed by Singapore law that covers your assets in your new home country. This approach serves a number of important purposes, including:
- Avoiding jurisdictional issues regarding the distribution of your assets in the US and Singapore;
- Avoiding issues of translation and legal interpretation; and
- Providing added flexibility to craft your overall estate plan to the particularities of each country’s laws.
3. Intestate Succession in the US and Singapore
If you die without an estate plan, or if your estate plan is less than comprehensive, any assets that fall outside of your plan will be governed by the law of intestate succession. This means that your loved ones will need to deal with the probate process (potentially in the US and in Singapore if your estate plan is deficient in both countries), and that they will not have clear guidance regarding who gets what. For example, if you leave behind two children and no spouse, in Singapore, each of your children would likely be entitled to one half of your total estate. But, how should they divide your estate evenly? And what happens if they disagree? These are the questions expatriates can – and generally should – avoid through the estate planning process.
In the US, intestate laws exist at the state level, and they vary from one state to the next. Even if your state’s intestate succession law happens to reflect your final wishes (which is virtually never the case), you should still prepare an estate plan to protect yourself and your loved ones in the event that the law or your family circumstances change in the future.
4. Estate Planning Tools in the US and Singapore
In the US, the most common estate planning tools are the will and the revocable trust. Although each state has its own estate planning rules, in many circumstances, it will make sense to establish a revocable trust and a “pour-over” will – which captures any assets that are not included in your trust at the time of your death. However, from life insurance and QTIP trusts to dynasty trusts and private foundations, there are numerous other options as well, and you truly have the ability to structure your estate plan in just about any way that you desire.
In Singapore, you also have a variety of estate planning tools available. Some of the options that expatriates most commonly use include:
- Testamentary Trusts
- Central Provident Fund (CPF) Nominations
- Joint Tenancy and Tenancy-in-Common for Owning Real Estate
- Life Insurance Policies and Trusts
It is important to note that Singapore law imposes certain formality requirements in order for a will to be legally-enforceable. For example, the will must be signed at the bottom, and it must be witnessed by at least two individuals who are beneficiaries or the testator’s spouse. Some US states have formality requirements as well, and this is something you will need to make sure you address when you prepare and sign your will.
5. Executors and Powers of Attorney
In the US and Singapore, an executor (or “personal representative”) is the person who is responsible for administering your estate plan and resolving your final affairs after your death. It is important to designate an executor in both countries, and you should choose someone who is comfortable fulfilling the role. Depending upon your family circumstances, this could be a relative, or it could be an attorney or third-party estate administrator.
It is generally advisable to establish powers of attorney in both countries as well. By granting a power of attorney, you authorize someone else (such as your spouse or an adult child) to manage your healthcare and finances should you become unable to do so. Even though you are not living in the US, it is generally a good idea to include powers of attorney (also known as “living wills” and “advance health care directives”) in your US estate plan just in case something happens when you are visiting home.
Important Note for Muslim US Citizens Residing in Singapore
If you are a Muslim and you live in Singapore at the time of your death, the distribution of your estate will be governed by the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), as revised in October 2017. The AMLA includes provisions (including requirements for the enforceability of wills) that differ significantly from those of US and Singapore national law. We encourage you to inquire for more information.
Speak with an International Estate Planning Lawyer in Confidence
If you are moving (or have recently moved) to Singapore, our attorneys can help you craft an estate plan that protects your assets in the US, Singapore, and abroad. To get started with a confidential initial consultation, please call (646) 389-5065 or contact us online now.