31 Aug 2020 by Sophie Liu

Distribution of Kobe Bryant’s Estate: Comparison of Succession Laws in PRC and the United States

On 27 February 2020, a public memorial for great Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna was held at Staples Center, Los Angeles. Mourners gathered to honour the lives of Kobe and Gianna, who passed away in a helicopter accident along with seven passengers on 26 January 2020. Kobe’s wife, Vanessa Bryant, who made her first public appearance at the memorial since the tragedy, spoke through tears as she shared memories of her late husband and daughter. It has wrenched the heart of millions.

On one hand, the loss of Kobe’s great soul leaves the world grieving, as Kobe’s “Do you know what Los Angeles looks like at 4 o’clock in the morning?” has motivated countless people to fight for their dreams.

On the other hand, people begin to wonder how Kobe’s estate is going to be distributed. According to the media in the United States, Kobe had amassed an estimated fortune of more than US$2 billion, which is around RMB14 billion, yet it seems he had not left a will. In 2016, Kobe published a letter to his 17-year-old self, which he signed his name and wrote:

“[…] [Y]ou need to figure out a way to invest in the future of your family and friends. […] I said INVEST. I did not say GIVE. Let me explain. Purely giving material things to your siblings and friends may appear to be the right decision. […] But the day will come when you realize that as much as you believed you were doing the right thing, you were actually holding them back. You will come to understand that you were taking care of them because it made YOU feel good, it made YOU happy to see them smiling and without a care in the world — and that was extremely selfish of you. While you were feeling satisfied with yourself, you were slowly eating away at their own dreams and ambitions. You were adding material things to their lives, but subtracting the most precious gifts of all: independence and growth. […] Invest in their future, don’t just give. Use your success, wealth and influence to put them in the best position to realize their own dreams and find their true purpose.”

Can this letter be taken into account when ascertaining Kobe’s intention in distributing his assets and properties?

According to the media, every state in the United States has its own inheritance law and California’s law will govern the way Kobe’s estate is distributed and inherited. Pursuant to The California Probate Code, there are two means to execute a will in California. The first way is that the will shall be printed and signed by the testator with at least two persons being present at the same time to witness the signing of the will. Alternatively, a holographic will can be executed even if it is not witnessed and printed, provided that the signature and the material provisions are in the handwriting of the testator.

Apparently, Kobe’s letter has failed to satisfy any of those requirements. Moreover, the letter has not evinced any intention to execute a will, and in the objective sense, it does not shed light on how Kobe’s assets and properties will be distributed and who the beneficiaries are. Therefore, this letter can neither constitute a will nor an evidence to be taken into account by the Court when distributing Kobe’s estate. The primary theme of Kobe’s letter is only to express his wish to “invest” in his family and friends, help them gain independence and growth, and support them in chasing their own dreams.

If a similar situation occurs in mainland China, this letter will not be found as a valid will as well, because both its formality and substance do not fall within legislative requirements. According to Law of Succession of the People’s Republic of China, there are five means of making a will, namely making a notarial will, a testator-written will, a will written on behalf of the testator, a will made in the form of a sound-recording, or a nuncupative will. Only those made in accordance with the provisions of the law are enforceable.

From the news, the Orange County police who handled Kobe’s estate issues have explained that, “According to the law of California, around 50% of Kobe’s estate will go to Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, and the remaining 33% to 50% will be distributed among Kobe’s three surviving daughters equally. Kobe’s parents and his two sisters will not be able to lay claim to his estate.”

Perhaps many might be surprised with the fact that Kobe’s parents cannot even get a penny and speculate if this is due to Kobe’s less-than-amicable relationship with his parents. According to The California Probate Code, Division 6 which governs intestate succession has clearly stated that, if the deceased has executed a valid will, his estate will be disposed of according to his will. However, if the deceased dies intestate (i.e. without a valid will), his estate will pass to his heirs as prescribed in the intestate succession law. This practice is similar to that in mainland China. California is a community property state and as Kobe was married at the time he passed away, different rules will apply to the succession of community property and separate property. With respect to Kobe’s estate, the applicable rules are:

  1. As to community property, the surviving spouse is eligible to one-half of the community property that belongs to the decedent.
  2. As to separate property, the surviving spouse is eligible to one-third of the intestate estate where the decedent leaves more than one child.
  3. The remaining part of the intestate estate will pass to the children of the decedent equally.

Therefore, when there is a surviving spouse and children, all of the community property will pass to the spouse while the remaining properties (e.g. separate property) will pass to the spouse and children of the decedent, rendering parents and siblings of Kobe with no right to inherit any of his properties.

Compared with the law in California, the law of mainland China differs greatly in determining the succession of community property, as well as the order and rules of inheritance.

  1. Half of the joint property acquired by the spouses in the course of their matrimonial life shall be first allotted to the surviving spouse and the remainder shall constitute the decedent’s estate.
  2. The successors first in order shall inherit to the exclusion of the successors second in order, which the first in order includes “spouse, children and parents” and second in order includes “brothers and sisters, paternal grandparents, maternal grandparents”. The successors second in order shall only inherit in default of any successor first in order.
  3. All successors in the same order shall inherit in equal shares.

In other words, if Kobe’s case takes place in mainland China, Kobe’s parents, together with his spouse and children, are first in order to inherit his estate. They will each be entitled to an equal share of Kobe’s estate, while Kobe’s sisters are not entitled to his estate as there are already successors first in order.

While it is possible that Kobe did not leave any wills because it was unforeseeable he would pass away at such a young age, the traditional view that openly discussing death brings bad luck has made wills and formal discussions about inheritance a taboo topic in China. As such, the courts are clogged up with inheritance disputes and relationships in families are torn apart as a result.

In fact, drawing up a will can be done unilaterally by the testator without the need to gain consent from the successors. It also allows one’s wishes to be genuinely preserved and carried out. As society progresses, more people have come to realise the importance of having formally documented wills and drafting their own wills. Nevertheless, as succession law in PRC imposes very stringent requirements on the formality of wills, a minor mistake may render the wills invalid and unenforceable. Over 60 percent of the wills have been declared invalid by the courts in mainland China. As such, to play safe, it is advisable that one seek assistance from professional lawyers when writing their wills. It is hoped that writing a will would no longer be regarded as taboo, instead, it can be viewed as the best and simplest tool for securing the estates’ future and preventing quarrels.

Published on the August 2020 issue of Hong Kong Lawyer

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