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Panama - Wills

Those who are living and working in Panama for any length of time should consider making a will, particularly if they own property in the country, but there are some regulations about making a will that should be taken into consideration. Wills in Panama are governed by the Civil Code. The system for making a will is very formal and as such the procedures need to be adhered to.

It is not possible in Panama to have a joint will with a spouse. Each person should have their own will. The concept of a ‘living will’ which is common in countries such as the US has not reached Panama yet. There are many different types of will which can be created in Panama. A hand-written will is acceptable under Panamanian law or the testator can opt for an open will, which is when he publicly announces his last wishes in front of witnesses and a notary. There is also a closed will, which is when a will is witnessed but the witnesses are not aware of the details. There are also special wills for those who are working overseas, working in the navy or the military.

The law states that only the person whose will it is has the right to make the will. It cannot be done by a third party unlike other legal procedures where a power of attorney can be issued.

Making an open common will can be challenging for those whose first language is not Spanish. A lawyer will be able to provide translations and have the execution of the will carried out in both Spanish and English. Two interpreters which have been chosen by the person making the will are required. The written form of the will must be done in both languages. The identity of the person making the will must also be confirmed if he/she is not personally known to the notary or the witnesses. This is done by taking along two people who know both the notary and the person making the will so that they can verify his/her identity.

To make the will you need to meet with the lawyer to work out the details and the drafting of the will. For an expat these can be presented in English in the first instance and reviewed until the testator and the lawyer are happy with the contents. The lawyer will then have the will translated into Spanish and both versions are checked by the testator and the translators.

At this stage the notary is brought in and all required parties must be present for a formal reading of the will and to have it signed. Everything is checked, from the translation to the details of the will before it is signed. As the reading of the will is formal no interruptions are permitted so those in the room should switch off their mobile phones so that the will can be read through in one sitting.

The procedure for a closed will is similar except that there is no reading of the will to the witnesses. A hand-written will can be lodged with a solicitor but will still need to be witnessed and translated if necessary.

Finding a lawyer to carry out this procedure is easy. Most will offer this service, though expats may feel more comfortable with a lawyer that has been recommended to them.

Those who do not have a will should be aware that their belongings will be distributed to immediate family members and the estate will incur charges of between 10 and 30% of the value, depending upon the lawyer dealing with the legalities.

Preparing the will means taking into consideration everything that you own. For expats this issue may include property which is held in another country. The regulations there will also need to be taken into consideration as some countries may not recognize a will that has been made in Panama so even if you have stated what you want to happen, they may consider you to have died intestate. You need to check the laws of all countries in which you have property, then figure out if you need separate wills for assets that are held in different places.

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