Putting on heirs, Part 1

On Jan. 23, the Asahi Shimbun reported that in 2021, ¥64.7 billion in assets were left to no one by people who had died. In other words, these people had passed away with no heirs and no will. In the end, most of this money will go to the national treasury. The amount mentioned is 7.5 percent more than the previous year’s amount, making it the highest ever recorded, and it will likely continue increasing until sometime after the baby boom generation dies off. As it stands, heirless assets have doubled in the past ten years and sextupled in the past twenty years, coinciding directly with the sharp increase in single-person households, many of which are occupied by seniors. In 2020, there were 6.71 million single-person households whose sole member was over 64, a 40 percent increase over the number in 2010. By 2030, this number is projected to increase to 8 million. Another reason for the increase is the decline in the rate of marriage. According to the Population Research Center, 28 percent of men over the age of 50 and 18 percent of women over 50 have never married. These portions are on the rise. 

The lesson that Asahi wants readers to take away from this information is that they should draw up wills as soon as possible if they haven’t already, especially if they have no children or family to whom they can or want to leave their money and property. 

When someone dies without an heir or will, any so-called interested parties can apply to family court for resolution, and the court will then appoint an executor to manage the assets. If the executor finds someone who they think deserves a share of the assets, say a caregiver or neighbor who may have been close to the deceased, those people may inherit something, but whatever is left over goes to the state. In 2021, 27,208 executors were appointed by family courts, another record. 

In order to explain the importance of legally binding wills, Asahi presents an example of a well-off man with lots of real estate assets who died at the age of 92 in Morioka with no heirs. His funeral was carried out by the real estate company he used in his property transactions as executor per his instructions before he died, and he gave the company ¥20 million to set up a grave at a nearby temple. He also wanted to set up a foundation and a scholarship with his money. These instructions were done verbally, however, and later a court rejected this “will” because it wasn’t written down. 

The court instead appointed a lawyer to be the executor of the estate, who then acquired the keys to the man’s house and all his bank records. The money he had in financial institutions amounted to ¥492 million. The safe in his home contained ¥810 million in cash. His real estate holdings, including his own 1,500 square meter home, which was located 10 minutes by foot from the nearest station, were assessed at ¥700 million. So the total worth of the estate was more than ¥2 billion.

The lawyer identified six “persons” as being “close” to the deceased during his lifetime and were deemed as deserving of part of the estate, including the real estate company and the realtor’s family, which had taken care of the man when he grew weak in his old age. He had four older siblings who had died much earlier, so when he talked to a notary in 2011 about drawing up a will, he said he had no heirs but that he didn’t want his estate to go to the government. However, he never actually drew up a will, mainly because he was still working on how to structure the foundation he hoped to leave behind. Acquaintances said he lived simply, and that, outwardly, it wasn’t obvious that he had a lot of money and property. 

In 2018, the family court approved ¥100 million of the estate for a neighbor who had taken care of the man, and ¥40 million for the realtor. Two distant female relatives had petitioned the court to claim part of the estate, but the court gave them nothing and they appealed the decision. Later that year, the Sendai High Court changed the terms of the inheritance, reducing the neighbor’s and the realtor’s shares to ¥2 million each. However, the two distant relatives still got nothing. 

The lawyer who was appointed executor told Asahi that deciding who gets what in such cases is completely up to the court and that there are no “standards” for such determinations. In any case, in the end almost all the man’s property went to the state, which was against his wishes. The state subsequently sold off the real estate and had his house demolished. In 2024, an 11-story condominium will be completed on the plot. 

This story illustrates the problem of not writing a valid will if you’re single and have no heirs, but experts also say that even if you do have heirs it’s a good idea to draw up a will in order to arrange your affairs in proper order—though it’s also likely that if your heirs contest the will they will win. Also, there are two types of wills, one that you draw up yourself and one that is drawn up by a professional. Though both are acceptable, in many cases hand-written wills can be rejected by courts due to procedural and other matters. This is especially true if you include certain conditions that you want met for inheritance. 


One comment

  1. Lee · February 2

    Several comments:

    1. Japanese judges “work” for the government or state. The state benefits from the judges’ decisions. Inherent conflict of interest in these type of cases. The judges are in effect a profit making centre for the government. There is no incentive for the judge to hand over much of anything to any entity other than their employer, the state.

    2. Wills and inheritance situations are very unfavorable for many people that involve a mixed marriage where a Japanese person part of the couple should supposedly inherit property/cash/shares and the remaining Japanese relatives want to lock out or reduce the amount given to that person or couple. The situation is even worse where the Japanese person that should inherit has left Japan. Lack of information, communication difficulties (time and distance), and the cost to engage legal services for an uncertain outcome put one at a severe disadvantage in these types of situations.

    3. The laws and tax situation regarding estates that have come into effect in 2017 in Japan (???) are one of the biggest drawbacks for many foreigners either living in Japan or contemplating moving to Japan.

    Any person that might inherit a reasonable estate or leave a reasonable estate will find themselves handing over a large amount of that inheritance to the Japanese government once subject to these new laws and taxes. And this is especially so where the person leaving the estate has zero connection to Japan.

    Unfortunately these changes negate any of the good benefits of living in Japan for many people.


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