Stepchildren fail in court bid for estate

The Straits Times
5 May 2012
K. C. Vijayan

STEP-PARENTS who wish to leave assets to their stepchildren after their death should expressly state so in a proper will.

This is the advice of Justice Tay Yong Kwang who, in a test case in the High Court, has ruled that four stepchildren are not entitled to a share in the estate of their stepmother.

She died last year without leaving a will. The assets, worth more than $1 million, should be left to her brother Suryono Wino Goei, 86, her sole surviving family member, Justice Tay said in judgment grounds released yesterday.

At issue in the case was whether the term ‘child’ under the Intestate Succession Act – which decides on the distribution of assets when no will is left behind – includes a stepchild.

The judge said that if the answer is yes, Madam Lina Halim’s estate – a Housing Board flat in Upper Aljunied and a freehold terrace house in Jalan Setia, as well as jewellery and cash – would be shared equally among the stepchildren. But if this was not so, the entire proceeds would go to her sole surviving family member.

Madam Lina married Mr Low Kim Huat in 1975 but they did not have any children. He had four children from a previous marriage, and she was said to have treated them as her own.

When Mr Low died in 1994, he left his estate to Madam Lina. In April last year, her decomposed body was discovered by police after neighbours noted a stench from her Upper Aljunied flat.

She would have been 78 today. An unsigned will made in 1984, apparently leaving her estate to the stepchildren, was found in her safe-deposit box in a bank, but there was nothing to show how this came about. As she had no will, the stepchildren sought a court declaration that their claims ranked higher than her brother’s.

Lawyer Gregory Vijayendran, arguing for the stepchildren, said there was nothing in the Act to stop a judge from interpreting ‘child’ to include stepchild.

He pointed out that the Act did not exclude stepchildren in the way it excluded illegitmate children. He argued that the Act was intended to accommodate local customs and needs, which would have included polygamous marriages in the past.

But lawyer Tan Yew Cheng, acting for Madam Lina’s brother, said the wording in the Act suggested an inheritance structure based on blood ties. She added that other acts, like the Maintenance of Parents Act, specifically included stepchildren within the definition of ‘child’. Parliament’s decision not to expressly include a stepchild within the Intestate Succession Act suggested it had no intention to do so.

Justice Tay ruled that the Act required a biological or legal connection between parent and child, and ‘hence the exception for lawfully adopted children who satisfy the legal but not the biological requirement’.

He said there was no evidence that Parliament intended to provide for stepchildren as well.

He acknowledged the evidence of Mr David Low, stepson of the dead woman, who said that Madam Lina had treated him and his siblings as her own children.

Mr Low argued that the estate belonged to the stepchildren, as their biological father had paid for most of the items.

Justice Tay held that these comments had no influence on the proceedings to determine the meaning of words in a statute. He made clear the court was not concerned with whether the brother deserved the whole or part of his sister’s estate, but whether stepchildren fell within the meaning of ‘child’ as provided in the Act.

The judge added that it was up to Mr Goei to make some provision out of the estate for the stepchildren if he wished to do so out of goodwill.

‘It will be a very good gesture on his part and I would certainly encourage him to do so,’ he said.