Mukesh Ambani (L) and Anil Ambani (R), sons of India's industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani, carry their father's body past a crowd of mourners and journalists to a crematorium in Bombay July 7, 2002. Mourners from India's political, business and entertainment worlds attended the funeral in Bombay on Sunday of industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani, who died the previous day aged 69. REUTERS/Arko Datta AD/CP - RP3DRIBRWYAA
The 2002 funeral of industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani, which sparked a family dispute over his business © Reuters

For people who spend much of this lifetime worrying about reincarnation in the next, rich Indians seem unusually skilled at avoiding any thought of death.

I know from experience how much trouble this widespread reluctance can cause, especially when it comes to keeping financial papers in order or, crucially, writing a will.

In the mid-1960s, my father was at Oxford university, aged 30 and looking forward to doing research, armed with a newly acquired degree in philosophy, politics and economics and the offer of a fellowship. A long-distance phone call ended that dream, as he was obliged to return home to India to take up his family duties as the only child of a wealthy father who had dropped dead of a heart attack aged only 58.

Home was an elegant bungalow on half an acre of some of the most expensive land in India — Malabar Hill in what was then Bombay. Much of the family’s wealth had been accumulated over three generations; ownership was consolidated using a tax structure unique to India — a Hindu undivided family (HUF). Referred to in the 1961 Income Tax Act as a group of persons lineally descended from a common ancestor, a HUF would be considered a “person” for assessment purposes and hence able to file returns under one name. It wrongly created the impression that all the property belonged to the family collectively — even foreign assets — and so discouraged the writing of wills.

As a Hindu widow, my grandmother retreated to a world of white cotton saris and religion. My father assumed control of assets that included an obscene pile of gold sovereigns, a holiday home, polo ponies stabled in England, three factories and 600 acres of agricultural land.

DELHI, INDIA - DECEMBER 2 : Residential area in Delhi, the capital of India on December 2, 2018 in Delhi, India. (Photo by Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)
Wealth in Delhi © Getty Images

The list of assets would have been very long — had there been a list at all.

My father had little choice but to embark on a challenging game of hide-and-seek, establishing ownership of assets. There were periods when liabilities outstripped resources, until the next offshore bank account or stash of jewellery, or handwritten IOU from a debtor, balanced things out. My father described those years as traumatic — grief compounded by anxiety, mitigated sporadically by welcome surprises.

Imagine my shock, then, when my father died six years ago — unexpectedly at 72 — and also failed to leave a will. I was left with a frequently hysterical mother, two siblings, the house on Malabar Hill, two holiday homes, a working farm, a six-week-old son and a legal nightmare. With no road map to guide us, my brother, my sister and I had to confront uncertainty — what did my father own? Who would he have wanted to leave it to?

An Indian sales assistant arranges gold ornaments during the Hindu festival of "Akshaya Tritiya" at a jewellery shop in Chennai on May 7, 2019. - "Akshaya Tritiya" is considered to be an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar to buy valuables and people generally flock to buy gold on this day in the belief that it will increase their wealth. (Photo by ARUN SANKAR / AFP) (Photo credit should read ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)
A jewellery shop in Chennai during the Hindu festival of Akshaya Tritiya © Getty Images

We embarked on painful discussions of who would get what. Our relationship with our late father’s advisers splintered, as we resented the full disclosure they had received that had been denied to us. Perhaps as a result, we lost control of assets when the hurdles to inheriting them proved too high — for example, paying estate duties higher than the value of a decrepit residential block in Mumbai’s docklands or trying to prove ownership of a Mayfair pied-à-terre without adequate paperwork. We remained a largely loving and solvent family but those were dark times.

Recently, I spotted a report from Wealth-X, a research company, that estimates over the next 10 years $15tn in wealth will be passed from one generation to the next globally. Given my experience, I could not help wondering how many of these people have no wills. Particularly if they are Indian. Even though we Indians are great at handling many family rites of passage, such as weddings, we are dismal at preparing for death. A 2018 report from wealth advisory firm BAF Consultants said 97 per cent of Indian families with significant businesses had no succession plan in place.

To ask why is to fall into a proverbial rabbit hole. Perhaps it is our deference to seniority — children are taught early to view parents and teachers as nothing short of divine — which makes it difficult to ask about wills. Certainly, the notion that we are caretakers rather than owners of wealth has a lot to do with it. Hindus, who at 80 per cent of the population are still the dominant cultural influence, attribute both ownership and causation of everything to a higher power.

Ours is not, apparently, a country in which people leave when they die. In some traditional homes it is common to lay a place at dinner for months for a member who is unlikely to appear for the meal except through resurrection. Everything from wedding invitations to annual reports are issued in the names of family members who have long since signed out of their karmic checking accounts.

F20NY6 India, Rajasthan state, Jaipur, brahman hindu wedding
A Hindu wedding © Alamy

I find these traditions endearing. But, without disregarding the beliefs that bind us, it is time for a serious national conversation about how we can transfer wealth from one generation to the next in a more orderly fashion. Without it, we continue to be limited by practices that undermine both the familial and broader social fabric, clog our courts and limit growth in an economy still dominated by family-run businesses.

India is not short of lawyers and other advisers ready to help. The difficulty lies not in identifying them, but in acknowledging the need for their help on succession issues.

Legal changes, such as the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005, have clarified key questions — for example, by granting daughters the same rights as sons. But, well intentioned though it is, the law is not a substitute for a detailed written bequest.

I for one am terrified of my own transience. As a parent, I have begun the laborious process of listing my assets and collating ownership into a trust. I hope more Indians do the same.

Shruti Advani is a freelance writer on private banking

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