The process of succession is that of transferring the assets of the dead to their beneficiaries. Japan, for all of its accommodating features, can appear unforgiving to the foreign expat eye when it comes to death. If you do not have a last will and testament then your assets will be succeeded to your family members based on the statutory Japanese government rules–
i.e the government have already predetermined who gets what, and as you have died “intestate”(as somebody who has not created a will), then there is little to be done. If you wish to avoid this, and ensure that succession of your assets is according to your personal wishes, then you will require a legally recognised will.
Types Of Wills In Japan
Holographic will (Jihitsu Shosho Igon 自筆証書遺言)
This is document prepared by you, in your own handwriting. It does not need to be written in Japanese. It should have your seal printed clearly (if you don’t already have one, you should get one. The cost is nominal. After you have ordered one, proceed to your ward office to have it legally registered as your jitsuin), contain your written signature, and also the date. This document will become legally actionable at your time of death. To execute the will, it will have to be registered at the Family Court, which deals with civil matters.
Notarial will (Kosei Shosho Igon 公正証書遺言)
This document is prepared by a professional notary (公証人) after a session with you and two witnesses (these do not have to be family members). You will recite your wishes and the notary will transcribe them for you in a manner which is legally recognised. The document will be signed by yourself, your witnesses and the notary and the original documents will be kept on file with the notary. This document again becomes actionable at your time of death, with the extra advantage that it generally does not have to be filed with the Family Court.
Secret Will (Himitsu Shosho Igon 秘密証書遺言)
This is another document written by yourself, including your seal and signature (ideally both), sealed in an envelope (with a seal covering the opening of the envelope). You then present this document to a notary, again in the presence of two witnesses, whilst declaring the contents of the document to be your last will and testament. As has been generic with the other types of document, this document too becomes actionable at death. The ‘secret will’ must also be filed with the Family Court.
Are Foreign Wills Valid In Japan?
Many people will be anxious that the wills that they prepared in their home countries may not be legally valid here in Japan. The good news is that in most cases the foreign will is also valid here in Japan as long as the following conditions are met:
1) The will is compliant, and legally recognised in the jurisdiction in which it was made.
2) The will is compliant, and legally recognised in the home country of the person writing the will.
3) The will is compliant, and legally recognised in the country where the person (the person with assets in question) is physically resident at their time of death
Does Dying In Japan Make Things More Complicated?
Being foreign in itself does not make you any different from a Japanese national. As long as you meet the requirements of the institutions that hold registry of the assets then nationality is no issue and succession will go by the book. For fixed assets like real estate (and its land) this will involve the land registry office, a transfer agent for stocks, the bank for bank deposits and so on. If there is a familial dispute during probate then you may find yourselves spending some time at a Japanese court, but if this is not the case, then nobody will preside over the succession, and you are free to handle things at your own pace. Probate documents listing the legal heirs and displaying power of attorney given by the executor of the will to somebody in Japan (and of course, all of the accompanying translations…), will likely be enough to satisfy most title ownership transfers. This being the case, the requirements of each individual institution vary, so it makes sense to check with each relevant party before going out and gathering your documents- especially if you wish to keep your rubber-stamping costs down.