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HDB Limits May Mean You Shouldn’t Give Your Flat To Your Kids: Low Seow Ling

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

(Please note that Low Seow Ling is now Managing Director at EMRE Legal LLC. This interview was conducted when Seow Ling was a director at Eden Law)


An experienced lawyer who believes in giving practical advice. Focusing on families with special needs, Low Seow Ling, an associate director at low bono-focused law firm, Eden Law Corporation, spoke to Immortalize about estate planning for people with special needs, such as those with dementia and mental disability, as well as the implications of HDB regulations on leaving your flat to your kids.


Name: Low Seow Ling

Company: Eden Law Corporation

Estate Planning Specialization: Professional Donees and Deputyships

Base Country: Singapore

Service Style: All-encompassing, empathetic, practical

Something interesting: Loves photographing insects. Participated in the making of a film about a family with a child with additional needs and their family struggles

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Q: What is a typical client or target group?

Low: Our typical clients are usually from low and middle income families. Many of my clients are Chinese-speaking.


Q: What is your estate planning specialization? What are the typical issues that your clients come to you for?

Low: I handle a range of estate planning matters like deputyship and will writing, but my heart lies with families with special needs members such as children or elderly with intellectual disabilities or dementia.


Typically, I write wills for them. I always encourage them to at least have a will because it is a very practical and useful estate planning tool that pre-empt the possible problems after their passing. I also encourage them to set up a special needs trust fund (a more affordable trust for people with special needs. See www.sntc.org.sg)


I consider myself to be the project manager for their estate planning needs. I handle their basic legal requirements and then direct them to other places as required (e.g. SNTC for special needs trust funds, insurance professionals for certain types of insurance policies).




Professional Deputyship


Because I'm a professional deputy, I receive enquiries from families that have family members with special needs as they are concerned about having a professional take care of their family members after their deaths.


For such families, I assist them with the best estate planning solutions from my experience so that the member with special needs can enjoy the benefits but at the same time be protected if someone else is managing the asset.


Q: How much do you charge for professional deputyship?

Low: My charges are generally based on the person’s asset. The person with no mental capacity is the one who is paying. The person who comes to us just helps to manage things.


For example, in one of my cases, I have a client who’s a destitute but has some money in the bank. In this case, I charge a fixed fee because I know it's just dealing with bank accounts.


Ultimately, it’s based on time cost, but for example, if this elderly has probably five more years to live and I calculate that based on her assets, she only has less than $1,000 to spend, then I might not charge her that much because I would want her to have enough money to spend.


Q: So sweet. So you charge based on people’s ability to pay?

Low: Those who can pay, we charge. Those who can’t, we help and I’ll adjust according to what I feel is alright charging. That’s basically the mission of our firm.


Q: Can you tell me more about your background? Why did you make the decision to go into this part of law, especially when it’s not the most lucrative area of law.

Low: I was from a neighborhood school, so I’m not your typical lawyer from elite schools. Growing up, I had always wanted to be a lawyer because I was inspired by watching lawyers on TV dramas.


In terms of family background, I feel that I am quite privileged because my family is complete and is financially stable. I have friends who struggle with family issues, especially when their family members pass away, so I am very aware of my privilege. These are the reasons why I am a lawyer, so that I would have the knowledge and power to help others less fortunate than me.


Q: So the corporate side, the money side never entices you at all?

Low: When I was growing up, my parents always told me “you have to do something that you like” instead of “you have to get a good job”. Their priorities were different. My idea of success isn’t defined by how much money I earn but instead by whether I can do something meaningful and contribute to society.


After junior college, I had the opportunity to go back to my secondary school as a teaching assistant. I taught students from Normal Technical and Normal Academic streams where a lot of students were affected by their family situations.




Knowledge Is Power


It wasn’t that they couldn’t or didn’t want to study, but they were affected by their environment. I got to know them, and found out that some of their parents were in prison or they had a complicated family history. I felt that as a lawyer, I could use my knowledge and skills to help make their families’ and children’s lives better.


Q: But why this law firm? I know your firm focuses on low bono, which isn’t very common in Singapore.

(Pro bono is where lawyer help low income people for free. Low bono are for people who don’t qualify for pro bono assistance but can’t pay normal legal fees.)

Low: I entered law school, graduated, and looked for a firm that did pro bono work. I soon realized that some law firms only did pro bono work for branding purposes and little actual help was rendered to their pro bono clients.


I ended up joining an ex-colleague in her new law firm with the idea of providing real legal help to underserved communities in Singapore, both pro bono and low bono work and not just for show.




Struggles of Altruism


When we first started, it was very flexible. When we saw clients in need of financial help, we charged less or did work for free. But we soon realized that this model wasn’t sustainable so over the years we fine-tuned it.


We learned along the way how to differentiate between clients who are really poor, and people who have means but just don’t want to spend their money and rely on freebies.


Q: Let’s focus on wills for a bit. What’s your view on online wills and will companies?

Low: I don’t have an issue with will companies but what people don’t realize is that lawyers are legally trained and must maintain professional standards. We will be sued for negligence if we render the wrong legal advice. If you decide to use a will company, you may be assisted by someone with more general knowledge about wills than you but they are not allowed to give legal advice. You cannot hold them accountable for their wrong advice.


Doing a will isn’t as simple as inserting names and IC numbers in a standard form. If this is what you want, you might as well DIY online without any legal advice and without the assistance of a will company.




Special Needs Members


The group that I care for are families with special needs members. You can’t just say you want to divide your assets 50-50 and it’s not as easy as just giving money to the person because the special needs person will not be able to manage your financial gift.


There’s more planning involved, and you need legal advice on the consequences of your actions and to see if there’s a better way of arranging your estate that can help you save money while maintaining safeguards for the person with no mental capacity.


For example, a family may have three children where one has special needs. The parents might say “my other children will take care this sibling with special needs”. But you have to think about your other children. You can’t say that just because the two of them don’t have special needs, it’s their responsibility to take care of the one with special needs.




Love Or Duty?


I help them think of ways to still involve the siblings but to lighten the siblings’ burden. It’s not to say that the child with special needs is a burden, but having to take care of someone not because you chose to but because your parents say you have to, this isn’t fair to the siblings as well.


Even if your kids say they love their special needs sibling, later on, their other half may say that they don’t want to be financially burdened. It’s a lot more complicated than people think.


Q: And you charge $400 for this? (Low previously mentioned that she charges $400 for a will)

Low: Many of my clients are not well to do to begin with. I don’t want them to be discouraged from planning their estates because of costs.


My purpose is to help them and I don’t want to them to think that I am trying to earn their money and therefore, they don’t want to talk openly. I want to know their purpose, their family background, and why they want to do things in a certain way.


I don’t want to tell them that if you add this clause, you add another $50. Then they will think that they don’t want to add anything and that defeats the purpose of doing a will.


Q: That make sense. A lot of will companies or pricing models out there charges by lines or number of clauses and I find that quite deterring, having to go in not knowing how much I will end up paying.

Low: For the people who can afford it, they won’t mind and they will pay for it to get proper advice. But a lot of these people who can afford are more educated and they have more information. It’s those who can’t pay that are the ones that need the advice but they don’t get it because they don’t want to pay for it.


For will companies, I’ve actually seen several wills that are done wrong because they put in clauses that are not workable. It’s like buying an insurance to insure your disability but there’s so many exclusion that you won’t be able to claim. You end up paying for nothing.


Q: I’ve spoken to a lawyer who said that he likes will companies, because he gets more dispute cases this way.

Low: [Laughs] My aim is to reduce dispute cases. In the end, it’s about making people’s lives better.


Q: What are the common issues that people or your type of clients usually don’t know they don’t know?

Low: HDB flats. People don’t realize the implications of giving their HDB flats to their children. 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing so this is an important consideration.


Take families with children with special needs for example.


They will tell me, I want to give this HDB flat to this child because this child cannot buy a flat by themselves. I will usually raise issues such as what happens to the outstanding loan if this child cannot get a mortgage or will the child be able to manage the flat? Legally, the child cannot own the flat in his/her name unless a deputy is appointed.


Or they would want to allow the child with special needs to stay in the flat but have the flat’s ownership held by other siblings. This is a trust situation that works with private property but is not allowed for HDB flats without prior approval.


Q: You can’t put a HDB flat in a trust?

Low: No, you can’t without prior approval from the HDB. Usually, the HDB flat is sold and the sale proceeds are distributed. But you can’t say that this HDB is given to A but for B to stay and A can’t sell until B agrees. Your flat needs to have an owner and once you give it to A, it belongs to A. You cannot have conditions attached. A lot of people don’t realize it and that’s where will companies sometimes go wrong.


Q: What about those without special needs kids?

Low: Same thing. Usually, they have one HDB flat.


For example, they wish to give the HDB to their kids and then I will ask them if their kids want to buy their own HDB. You cannot say that you give the flat to all of them, but it turns out that one of them owns a HDB flat and the other is single. Then your single child will have to pay your other child to retain the flat.


Or your child receives your flat first but later on, they want to buy their own flat and they will lose their first home ownership benefits. These are the issues that arise because of the restrictions that HDB has.


Q: Let’s talk about Covid-19. Have you seen an increase in people seeking estate planning advice or are there any interesting cases?

Low: In the height of the Covid pandemic, there were terminally ill people in hospital who wanted to do their will. I couldn’t help them because a will requires two witnesses but only one visitor is allowed. Unless the doctor or someone else is willing to be a witness, I can’t witness the signing on my own.


In the end, I told them to go online to DIY their will and get a visitor who is a friend and another person to witness for them. For these cases, they are on the brink of passing on and they just want to have something done.


I can’t do it because I need to talk to the client and make sure that I do my job properly. A lot of them they came to us through their family members and usually that’s not very safe because you don’t know whether the family members are biased and whether the instructions are accurate.


Q: Tell me something interesting about you. What do you do during your free time?

Low: I like photography and I participated in the production of a film on the side. My teacher’s husband is a writer and he wrote a film about a family with an autistic child and their family struggles. It’s like an indie film and everyone is just doing it in their free time.


Q: What kind of photos do you take? Do you publish these?

Low: Mostly sceneries and street photography. I don’t publish them. It’s just for my own enjoyment and happiness.


To me, it’s more of noticing the things around me. I take a lot of small things like insects and sometimes I caption them, depending on whether I get inspiration. Sometimes the caption is what I think the insect is thinking. Or my feelings. I have some on Instagram but most of it are for my own enjoyment. Ultimately, it’s about appreciating the things around us. Like finding the beauty in small things.


This interview has been edited for length.


 

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Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or site should be construed as providing legal advice or advice of any sort. The information provided are general in nature and may become inaccurate over time. Please consult a professional for advice.


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