Inheritance & Wills in Japan
Fewer things are harder to bear than the passing of loved ones. Inheritance and wills should be proactively addressed to prevent an unnecessary burden on loved ones.
When you come from a dual-culture, or when you are a foreigner living in Japan, your troubles are exponential. Especially when you realize that heirlooms and other possessions (that were destined for you) have somehow been usurped. It only adds insult to injury and irreparably destroys family ties that, in effect, were already broken when you learned about the nefarious actions of your relatives.
Can you get back your inheritance and how can you best protect your family from going through this in the future?
On the issues of inheritance, the typical story is that a Japanese relative has died, and that you’ve come to realize you have been marginalized in your inheritance. The complaint I always hear is, “I don’t know what the law says, but this distribution sure doesn’t seem fair to me…”
Not only might it be unfair but (in the absence of a Will) it also might be illegal. Traditionally in Japan, inheritance always went to the eldest son—the one burdened with taking care of elderly parents until their deaths. However, since the end of the war, very specific laws have been implemented which dictate how, in the absence of Will, an estate should be distributed. It follows a certain calculation that even accommodates illegitimate children in the distribution. Nevertheless, in some remote areas of Japan, the old inheritance system is still present in the minds of locals. This creates a definite clash of cultures when patriarchs pass on, and often these situations lead to an uncle or an aunt preventing you from getting your share of the inheritance.
I’ve been working here in Japan for over thirty years, providing services to individuals with inheritance problems. I grew-up on the Japanese island of Okinawa, so I have witnessed foreigners (and their children) being defrauded from their inheritance by unscrupulous relatives.
When blood relatives take it upon themselves to decide “who gets what” you need to act quickly, and carefully, while remaining firm in your convictions. The ability of the parties to settle these situations without professional assistance rapidly approaches zero. The result is years of litigation and the complete destruction of all family ties. This is avoidable. Death and taxes indeed are inevitable, but you can prevent your loved ones from ever having to go through a fight over assets. This is the minimum you should expect. As a result of seeing, firsthand, the destruction of families due to inheritance disputes, I expanded my business to include providing Wills to my clients as well. With the creation of a Will, you can overrule the intestate succession law: a last letter to your loved ones in which you decide how your estate is divided.
A Will written in Japan does not necessarily need to be written in Japanese for it to be effective. People frequently ask, “I’m not rich, so why should I need a Will?” The truth of the matter is that everyone needs a Will, no matter what your possessions are now or what they might become in the future. Your estate will expand and shrink depending on your children, the deaths of your relatives and other unforeseen variables.
Unfortunately, Wills are little-used (strangely enough) and often misunderstood here in Japan. Not many people like to think about their own death which is why writing a Will is so difficult, but it carries tremendous advantages.
The first advantage is that, should anything happen to you, you know that your loved ones will be taken care of and protected. Not just anyone can write a Will that can hold up in court, or that will be effective to accommodate all situations that could possibly arise unforeseen in five or ten years. There are only a few recognized ways to formalize a Will in Japan and the one that makes the most sense is the process that I follow. You want to write a Will once and put it to sleep. I advise on how to do it and what points to consider. The process can take just about three weeks but, because there are plenty of hard decisions that have to be made, the process generally takes a bit longer.
Another reason to have a Will is to keep your estate as tax-free as possible. There is a certain limit established by every country below which, in the event of death, you don’t have to pay taxes. Keep in mind that the established amount is not simply the balance in savings accounts, but the valuation of the totality of assets. Also, although you might die in Japan and estate taxes might apply, some of your assets in other countries might be collected, assessed and distributed according to your Will or through the intestate succession rules of another country.
It is also essential that your Will is recognized under both Japanese law and the law of the jurisdiction in which the majority of your assets might be located. Creating a Will is a responsible solution that can save your loved ones from foreseeable (unnecessary) burdens and complications.