Inheritance disputes lead to family tragedies

By Hai Hien   March 23, 2024 | 03:00 pm PT
Inheritance disputes lead to family tragedies
Inheritance disputes in Vietnam have surged in recent years. Illustration photo by Pexels
In the final chapters of her life, An bore witness to a heartbreaking spectacle: her own children and grandchildren locked in a bitter feud over the land adjacent to her hospital bed

Originating from Vinh Phuc, a province in northern Vietnam, An's life was marked by early widowhood and the formidable task of raising five children, four daughters and a son, single-handedly.

In times of robust health, she planed to divide her 1,000-square meter plot of land to her offspring: half for her daughters, and the remaining half designated for her son to erect a shrine honoring their ancestors.

Tragically, An never formalized her wishes in a will, believing her verbal instructions would suffice. "Later on my children will know how to divide it among themselves," she said.

Little did she anticipate the profound discord that would ensue. Since that day, An's house has not had a day without the cursing and arguing of her five children.

Two years prior, amidst a frenzied surge in land prices, An suffered a debilitating stroke, rendering her bedridden and forgetful of the precise arrangements. Seizing the opportunity, her son unilaterally claimed ownership of the entire plot, sparking a tempest of discord among his siblings, who now engaged in ceaseless quarrels by their mother's bedside.

The daughters insisted on honoring An's oral decree, while their eldest brother, invoking archaic notions, vehemently proclaimed: "Inheritance is the birthright of men."

Associate Professor Dr. Do Minh Cuong, a distinguished economic expert, says the pervasive nature of such familial conflicts in Vietnam are deeply rooted in a bias favoring male heirs. This entrenched mindset, he asserts, prevails in rural communities steeped in age-old customs and traditions, exacerbating inheritance woes.

Because daughters traditionally move in and care for their husbands’ families after being "married off" – they are even sometimes arranged to marry with a kind of dowry, old-school parents see their daughters "as others’ children," Cuong said.

Such practices can be seen in wives no longer visiting their parents on holidays and instead only spending time with their husbands’ families and relatives.

"This is more evident in rural areas when people treat each other according to family and clan customs and traditions," the expert said.

According to data from the Supreme People's Court, inheritance disputes in Vietnam have surged since the enactment of the 2015 Civil Code. The number of cases has increased rapidly year by year, some 27% annually in the 2015-2018 time period

Lawyer Diep Nang Binh, a seasoned litigator in such cases, attributes much of the strife to the absence of written wills, relying instead on oral agreements or unofficial documents, which breed ambiguity and invite unwanted consequences.

Binh underscores the imperative for parents to draft legally binding wills while of sound mind, cautioning against premature asset transfers that can precipitate familial strife or leave parents vulnerable to exploitation.

As someone who has handled many lawsuits over inheritance disputes, lawyer Binh advised that how to divide and when and whether to divide all assets at once or not is also very important, because if parents divide assets early, it can still cause conflicts between parents and children or between children.

Many parents fear being kicked out of their homes after transferring all the rights of their assets to their children, something that can only be rectified if the law intervenes.

Binh has encountered cases where parents were disowned, insulted, or assaulted by their children and grandchildren because of the division of assets.

Illustrating the perils of premature asset distribution, the plight of Minh Son, a septuagenarian from Nghe An, and his wife, serves as a poignant cautionary tale.

Despite bestowing their entire estate upon their son, hoping for filial care in their twilight years, they faced vilification and neglect at the hands of their daughter-in-law. Alienated and abused, they sought refuge with their daughter, only to face further hostility from their son, culminating in a harrowing altercation necessitating police intervention.

Son and his wives found themselves subjected to public embarrassment when they were forced to vacate their home, accompanied only by their family's incense bowl, as their conflict with their son and daughter-in-law reached its zenith. Just months prior, they had bestowed their land and house inheritance upon their only son, hoping for his care in their twilight years.

Once, Son and his wife had been treated well by their son, receiving occasional gifts of expensive ginseng or new clothes. However, with the transfer of all their assets, their daughter-in-law began to insinuate that they were "useless," citing their weakened limbs and struggles with walking and eating.

Despite their desire to seek refuge with their nearby daughter, their son adamantly thwarted their attempts, accusing them of conspiring to reclaim property. Recently, Son faced further insult from his daughter-in-law for a minor accident involving a dropped rice bowl.

Witnessing this degradation, Son discussed with his wife the possibility of relocating to their daughter's home, despite their son's persistent harassment and threats, including wielding a knife, an ordeal that ultimately led Son to call the police.

Regarding cases like Son's, lawyer Diep Nang Binh suggests that not disclosing asset transfers to children early may help prevent disputes. Additionally, parents retain the right to amend, supplement, or replace the will before the inheritance is opened.

Binh emphasizes proactive parental guidance in instilling independence and equality among children, prioritizing familial love to mitigate future conflicts. "This preparation is essential, especially when considering an early inheritance," Binh remarked.

Expert Do Minh Cuong concurs, advocating for early education on independence and self-care in children, alongside parental considerations for their own future well-being. While parents may choose to bestow financial assets or property upon their children, Cuong stresses the importance of achieving retirement goals and maintaining a surplus before doing so.

In advising on inheritance planning, Binh advocates for meticulous oversight and delineation of rights and obligations, coupled with the flexibility to amend testamentary arrangements as circumstances dictate.

Emphasizing that familial bonds are paramount, Cuong contends that cultivating a culture of equality and mutual respect from a young age eliminates the need for contentious inheritance battles, underscoring the priceless value of familial love transcending material wealth.

"After all, land or assets will decrease in value over time, but family love, although invisible, is priceless," he said.

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