31 people claim share of $4m bungalow in Katong

Above, some descendants of Madam Wan attending a beneficiaries' meeting in October last year. -- PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO, ROCKWILLS TRUSTEE
Above, some descendants of Madam Wan attending a beneficiaries' meeting in October last year. -- PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO, ROCKWILLS TRUSTEE
The house on Carpmael Road, which Madam Wan Chin Neo bought for $1,900 in 1937, was sold last year for $4 million. -- PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO, ROCKWILLS TRUSTEE
The house on Carpmael Road, which Madam Wan Chin Neo bought for $1,900 in 1937, was sold last year for $4 million. -- PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO, ROCKWILLS TRUSTEE

Trustee to check for wills by descendants that could affect share of proceeds

Many of them have never met, yet all can trace their heritage to a small, rundown bungalow in Katong.

Bearing different family names - including Chin, Goh, Koh and Tan - they are descendants of Madam Wan Chin Neo, the late Peranakan matriarch who bought the house for $1,900 in 1937.

These 31 of her descendants will soon meet for the first time to discuss the distribution of her estate. This includes the house in Katong, which was sold last year for $4 million.

Joining them is Madam Wan's great-great-granddaughter, Madam Agnes Yeo, who applied for a share on behalf of her 76-year-old mother, Madam Goh Kim Choon.

"I did not know she (Madam Wan) existed until two weeks ago," said the 51-year-old co-owner of a music school.

"I'll probably accompany my mother to the meeting. It would be interesting to see my new-found relatives."

Initially, only 15 people - all descended from Madam Wan's only son, Mr Koh Hoon Teck - had lodged their claims with Rockwills Trustee, which was appointed last year as trustee for the estate.

The estate planning and trust firm has been searching for heirs to the almost $4 million in proceeds from the sale of the house on Carpmael Road, which looks out of place in a row of newer private homes.

But now, descendants of all three of Madam Wan's children can get a slice of the pie after 16 more claimants emerged, following news reports on the matter last month.

The scene for the genealogical hunt was set when Madam Wan died shortly after buying the property, without leaving a will.

She had wanted the house to remain in the family for generations to come, and created a trust which stated that the property was for her descendants to occupy in perpe-tuity.

The High Court, however, ruled in 2012 - more than 70 years later - that her intention to keep the house in the family forever was not valid, after some relatives asked to clarify its legal status.

The court ordered the property sold and its proceeds distributed among her surviving descendants.

This posed a challenge as Madam Wan and her three children were all long dead.

Since none of them left a will, the money has to be shared under inheritance rules by their descendants - who must first be traced.

The heirs are largely Madam Wan's great- and great-great-grandchildren, some of whom came down from as far as Penang in Malaysia to stake their claim. Many are retirees.

Conducting the search for them included tombstone inspections at the Bukit Brown cemetery and a newspaper advertisement.

Madam Wan is estimated to have 100 descendants living today.

Mr Koh, who once ran a bookshop in the Raffles Hotel, had 16 children. A founder of the Gunong Sayang Association, a well-known Peranakan cultural group, he died in 1956 at age 75.

His sisters, Madam Koh Sun Hay and Madam Koh Keng Hay, died in 1938 and 1939 respectively. They had nine children between them.

Lawyers told The Sunday Times that Madam Wan's case is an uncommon one.

Ms Elaine Seow, partner at law firm Braddell Brothers, said: "Perpetual trusts usually exist as charitable trusts or foundations, or not-for-profit entities.

"It's uncommon for an intestacy case to remain outstanding for such a long time."

Mr Gregory Vijayendran, partner at law firm Rajah & Tann, agreed, noting: "What's novel is the fact that both first and second generations had not left wills, in view of the (current) substantial value of the estate."

Rockwills Trustee's chief executive, Mr Lee Chiwi, said that the next steps include checking for any wills made down the line that could affect the portions due to the 31 eligible beneficiaries so far, and gathering them to explain what has been found.

The latter will probably take place after the Chinese New Year.

Together with lawyer Goh Kok Yeow of law firm De Souza Lim & Goh, who is helping to trace the beneficiaries and deal with the relevant legal applications, Mr Lee will then approach the High Court in the following months for an order to distribute the money.

pohian@sph.com.sg