The fundamentals of wills in Japan

By Tomoko Hayashi

Amongst the work we regularly perform is the preparation of wills (commonly called “yuigon” in Japanese, but formally called “igon” in Japanese law).

According to a survey by the Japan National Notaries Association, more than 70,000 notarized wills were prepared in 2006, which is approximately double the number prepared in 1981 and shows that the number of wills is increasing. In order to increase awareness about assets and inheritance, Japan’s bar associations have designated April 15 as “Wills Day” (based on that date rhyming with “a good will” in Japanese) and host annual events, yet many people may say “a will is an extravagance!”

In this column, I would like to explain the fundamentals of wills (standard format wills) in an easy-to-understand way.

Anyone 15 or older can write a will

In order to write a will, the ability to understand the contents of the will and its legal effect (i.e. testamentary capacity) is necessary, but anyone aged 15 years or older will be judged to have that testamentary capacity. Therefore, anyone aged 15 years or older can write a will. Even a minor (under the age of 20) can write a will alone, without the consent of their legal guardian. However, a will written by an adult ward who has temporarily regained their capacity to appreciate their situation will require witnessing by two or more doctors.

Three types of “Standard Format Wills”

Wills are generally divided into the two categories of “standard format wills” and “special format wills”. Standard format wills are further divided into (1) holographic wills, (2) notarized wills and (3) sealed and notarized wills.

Holographic will – Easy to prepare

A holographic will is prepared by the testator simply handwriting (typing is not allowed) the entire contents of the will, the date of preparation and their name, and stamping it with their personal seal (a registered seal is not necessary). It can be written on any type of paper. Compared to other types of wills, this does not take much time or money.

However, if you forget a part such as writing the date, the will’s legal validity will not be recognized. Also, problems such as the will being lost, damaged or forged may arise. Further, a holographic will requires a “probate” process in the Family Court.

Therefore, a holographic will is easy to prepare, but has the demerit of easily becoming invalid.

Notarized will – A reliable option

A notarized will is written by a notary public based on the testator’s oral instructions; the testator and witnesses authorize it by signature and seal, and the notary also signs and seals the document. As it requires attendance by witnesses and the involvement of a notary public, and the original is stored at the notary’s office, it can be said that unlike a holographic will, there is less risk of problems such as a deficiency in the format. Also, the probate process is not required.

As a notarized will has a low probability of problems with its format and there is no risk of the will being damaged or lost, it can be said that this is the best option when a reliable document is required. In practice, the wills that we are involved in preparing are often notarized wills. However, it takes effort and money as, in principle, you must go to the notary’s office and also find two witnesses.

Sealed and notarized will – For when you do not want anyone to know the contents

The sealed and notarized will format is for when you want to keep the contents of the will secret and want the document to be stored safely. The testator signs and stamps the will, encloses it in a stamped and sealed envelope, and declares in front of the notary and two witnesses that it is their will. The will is valid even if it is fully typed on a computer. Loss can be prevented because it is stored at the notary’s office.

However, because the notary does not check the contents of a sealed and notarized will, there is a risk that it will be invalid due to deficiencies in its format.

A will can be revoked at any time

Once a will is made, there are times where the testator later changes their mind. In this situation, the testator can revoke it by writing words such as “I revoke my previous will which said…” in a new will (which does not have to be in the same format as the previous one). Also, previous wills are deemed to be revoked in the following circumstances.

  1. When a latter will conflicts with a previously written will (for example, after making a will that says, “I give my house to A”, making another will that says, “I give my house to B”), the latter will is effective, and the former will is deemed to be revoked.
  2. When the testator performs a later action that conflicts with a previously prepared will, the portion of the will that is in conflict is deemed to be revoked (for example, after making a will that says, “I give my house to A”, the testator sells the house to B).
  3. If the testator destroys the will itself, it will be deemed to be revoked.

I hope you have gained a bit of interest in “wills” after reading this column.

(Translated from the original Japanese)