Where there’s a will…..there’s a will
Let me preface this by saying that this article should not be considered as legal advice. I am not a lawyer and I am not an expert on Japanese law. It is based on my recent personal experience in preparing a will. For a more comprehensive read about wills and many other topics about the finalities of life in Japan you are recommended to buy Wilhelmina Penn’s excellent book “The Expat’s Guide to Growing Old in Japan”. It’s well worth the small sum of $5.99 for the downloadable e-edition. A paper version is also available.
This article is written with non-Japanese readers in mind, but the basics can apply to Japanese citizens too.
My wife (who is Japanese) and I decided it was time to have our Japan wills written. On the recommendation of a friend we visited the law office of Yuki Ichikawa (firstname.lastname@example.org). Lawyer Ichikawa is fluent in English and is admitted to the bar to practice law in both Japan and the state of New York.
Of course, you can write you own will, known as a holographic will, but bear in mind that there are certain rules for doing so. First of all, you must hand write your holographic will, in Japanese, stamp your hanko on it, as well as the envelope, and make sure it is in a place where your survivors can easily find it. Read more about that in Ms. Penn’s book.
Keep in mind that the laws of your own country may require a different will to cover that country. This article only refers to Japan.
To determine if you need a will in Japan you can talk to Mr. Ichikawa or buy Ms. Penn’s book noted above. If you have a Japanese spouse, and have any assets in Japan, then chances are you need a Japan will.
If asking a lawyer or a public notary to prepare the will the procedure is not arduous, but it does take a bit of work. You will need to provide your lawyer, or the notary, with a copy of your family register (if you’re Japanese), an inkan shomeisho (proof of your personal hanko’s registration), a list of assets such as property, shares held in any company’s in Japan, and bank names (not the amounts, but the names), addresses for yourself and your children (if different), and how you want the estate divided. Remember, without a will in place, Japan has very specific laws about how your estate will be parceled out to your heirs. This may be in accordance with what you had hoped for or it may not. Once again, I refer you to Ms. Penn’s excellent book for more details.
In our case, we opted to have Lawyer Ichikawa draw up our wills. He provided us with copies in both Japanese and English, but the official document is the Japanese one. The English document is just for reference, but it is nice having it in both languages for ease of understanding. He is an expert, his fee was reasonable and he is a very easy, and nice, person to talk to. That’s why I’m recommending him.
Mr. Ichikawa will also act as the executor of your will, if you wish, but that duty can be assigned to anyone you name in the will (it’s a good idea to let them know, of course). He will charge for that, but that part of the fee only comes due when it’s time for the will to be executed, i.e., upon death and execution of your will.
In addition to Mr. Ichikawa’s fee you should also be prepared to pay the notary who prepares the actual paperwork for the deed and notarizes it. This fee varies according to the value of your total assets in Japan including property value, stocks, bank accounts, and other tangible assets. For the property you’ll need to provide a copy of your real estate tax bill, but for stock or cash related amounts you can just tell them the amount, no proof required.
Once you have all documentation needed send it to your lawyer or, if you’re working directly with a notary, to the notary. When the documents are prepared you will need to take proof of identification, such as a driver’s license, and your registered seal (hanko) with you, plus cash to pay the notary.
Normally, you will be given two copies of your will, the lawyer will keep one, and the notary will file an electronic copy into the nation-wide system that can be accessed by any notary or lawyer. This is the copy that will be used by the Family Court at the time of death.
Thinking about death, taxes, and wills is never fun, but neither is the potential nightmare you will leave for your family if you die intestate (i.e., no will in place). In that case, your estate will be parceled out according to the laws of Japan whether you like it or not (well, you won’t be here, but you know what I mean).
So, to wrap this up, let me urge you to talk to your lawyer (or Mr. Ichikawa) sooner rather than later and order a copy of Ms. Penn’s book today.