WITH a rising number of elderly people and more suffering from mental conditions, Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong has called on lawyers here to be more diligent when drawing up wills for the elderly.
The extra effort would pay off in minimising the number of inheritance spats coming to court.
His comments came in the wake of a clash between two sisters who took each other to court over their mother's estate, which included a half-share of a $13 million house in Holland Road.
Ms Caroline Chee, 48, and her elder sister Muriel, 54, had each produced a will by their late mother, Madam Goh Hun Keong, who died in 2004 at the age of 83.
The younger woman claimed that a will made in 1989 would leave her with almost the entire estate.
She argued that a later will, made in 1996, leaving her sister as the main beneficiary, could not stand as their mother was mentally unfit by then.
She won the case in the lower court, but Ms Muriel Chee appealed.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the lower court, which had ruled that Madam Goh, who suffered from dementia and depression in her later years and was on a cocktail of drugs, was incapable of making a will by 1996.
The court found the lawyer hired by Ms Muriel Chee - Madam May Oh, whose father was a cousin of Madam Goh's husband - had prepared the 1996 will without having spoken to Madam Goh about its contents.
All the instructions the lawyer took came from Ms Muriel Chee instead. Madam Oh neither explained the documents to Madam Goh, nor took attendance notes during two meetings with Madam Goh.
In the Appeal Court's judgment grounds published last week, CJ Chan said: 'The 1996 will was the product of their discussion on the terms, and not Madam Goh's intentions as Muriel had claimed.'
Lawyers need to take 'necessary precautions or steps' to fulfil their duties to clients when it comes to drawing up wills, he added.
In any case, a lawyer should be cautious about taking instructions from any person who is a beneficiary under the will.
The Chief Justice also spelt out the steps lawyers should take:
If the testator is known to suffer from any mental infirmity, a doctor should be called in to certify her mental capacity before she is allowed to sign the will.
With clients with mental conditions, like Madam Goh, lawyers should, among other things, have a medical officer assess their mental capacity.
The lawyer should also ask if the testator is making a will for the first time and whether she knows she is revoking an existing will.
Added CJ Chan: 'These questions may be formulaic, but they are necessary to avoid cases such as these.'