SINGAPORE: On his 80th birthday, a man realised that his Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings would be left to his estranged ex-wife, even though he assumed it was voided after his divorce.
He then tried to nominate his daughter as his CPF beneficiary, but died before he could do so successfully.
His daughter, Ms Adeline Toh Tun Li, turned to the High Court for an order to have the funds released to her by the CPF Board.
In his grounds of decision published on Wednesday (Mar 8), Justice Lee Seiu Kin ruled in Ms Toh’s favour.
He also said he found it puzzling that a divorce did not automatically revoke a pre-existing nomination, saying it “could be a matter for the CPF Board to consider”.
The late Mr Toh Kim Hiang divorced his wife Ms Yee Swee Yong in February 1985 and his family effectively cut off contact with her.
On Nov 7, 2021, when celebrating his 80th birthday with his daughter and her husband, Mr Kim said he believed that his prior CPF nomination in favour of his ex-wife had been voided after his divorce, such that his CPF monies would be inherited by Ms Toh.
His son-in-law, Mr Ng Chye Aik, told Mr Toh that the 80-year-old would in fact have to make a fresh CPF nomination.
Mr Toh then tried to do so. He made a submission online on Nov 22, 2021 to nominate his daughter as his CPF nominee. His son-in-law completed his online attestation.
The second witness was supposed to be Ms Toh’s sister-in-law, but she did not manage to complete her attestation and the submission expired a week later.
Mr Toh made another submission on Nov 30, 2021. However, Ms Toh’s sister-in-law again did not complete her attestation as a second witness.
She claimed that she had received mobile text messages from the CPF Board asking her to log on to complete her attestation to Mr Toh’s signature, but did not see any message or notification for further action when she logged in. She thus assumed it was enough for her to log in.
Mr Toh fell ill shortly after and died on Jan 4, 2022.
Ms Toh and her husband sent requests for the CPF savings to be disbursed to Ms Toh instead of Ms Yee, but the CPF Board explained that Mr Toh had not successfully made a new nomination before his passing.
It was later discovered that Mr Toh had keyed in the wrong NRIC number under the details of the second witness, which was likely why the attestation could not be completed.
DAUGHTER TURNS TO COURT
Ms Toh then turned to the High Court for the nomination to be declared a valid CPF nomination under the CPF Act, superseding any previous nomination.
In the meantime, she successfully applied for the CPF Board to be restrained from distributing the CPF monies until the case was over.
There were two failed attempts to serve papers for the case on Ms Yee at her last known address in the Malaysian state of Perak, so Ms Toh was allowed to serve the documents via substituted service by way of an advertisement in local Perak newspapers.
Ms Toh’s lawyers, Covenant Chambers’ Mr Goh Hui Hua and Mr Tan Jia Jun James, said that the rules involved to prevent fraud were not engaged in this case.
Mr Toh had intended for his daughter to be the sole beneficiary of his CPF monies, and had taken steps to make it happen.
Counsel for the CPF Board, Ms Teh Ee-von of Infinitus Law, said that Mr Toh’s attempts to change his nomination were invalid for two reasons: Mr Toh did not make the nomination himself, but his son-in-law did so on his behalf.
Second, Mr Toh did not directly communicate his intention to make the nomination with the second witness.
Justice Lee said it was clear that Mr Toh could not have intended for his CPF monies to pass to Ms Yee.
“They had lived their lives essentially as strangers since their divorce,” he said. “At the time of the deceased’s passing, Ms Yee and the deceased had been divorced for over 36 years.”
He added that Ms Yee had not kept in contact with her ex-husband and daughter for many years.
“The completeness of her estrangement from the family can be seen from the difficulties that Ms Toh encountered in locating Ms Yee to serve the documents for the present case,” said the judge.
He added that the evidence is strong that Mr Toh intended to give the money to his only daughter upon his death.
Mr Toh’s intention to nominate his daughter was also corroborated by his will, which showed his intent to bequeath his property absolutely to her as well.
“For the avoidance of doubt, I am not saying that the deceased’s testamentary intent supersedes the operation of the CPF Act, but merely that when all the evidence is taken together, the deceased’s testamentary intent is part of the evidence in support of the finding that he intended his CPF monies to go to Ms Toh rather than to Ms Yee,” said Justice Lee.
The fact that the second witness had not given her attestation to Mr Toh’s nomination meant that Mr Toh did not fulfil a requirement under the CPF (Nominations) Rules.
Justice Lee said the question then is whether the submission should be considered invalid given Mr Toh’s non-compliance with the CPF (Nominations) Rules.
“Interestingly, both the CPF Act and the CPF (Nominations) Rules do not make any provision for the consequences of non-compliance with the requirement for attestation,” said Justice Lee.
In contrast, the Wills Act lays out a requirement for the signature of the testator to be witnessed, stating expressly that no will shall be valid unless it is in writing and executed in a certain manner.
“The point I wish to make is this. While the Wills Act expressly states that non-compliance will the required formalities would render a will invalid, … the CPF Act and the CPF (Nominations) Rules are conspicuously silent on the consequences of non-compliance with the formalities of a CPF nomination,” said the judge.
However, the main purpose underpinning the rule for attestation of a CPF nomination is to prevent fraud. At the same time, the provisions safeguard both the CPF Board and members of the CPF Board from disputes after a member’s death.
Justice Lee found that there was no suggestion of fraud in this case and that there was nothing wrong in principle for Ms Toh’s husband to help his father-in-law with the submission.
He ordered the CPF Board to release the money to Ms Toh.
He made no cost orders as he did not think the CPF Board should be liable for costs, as the application “was warranted by the deceased’s own non-compliance with the nomination process, such that the nominee had to come to court to give effect to the nomination”.
“As formalities were not complied with, the CPF Board was entitled to refuse to recognise the nomination until the court orders otherwise,” said Justice Lee.