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Notaries, government aim to change Mexicans’ minds about drawing up wills

Despite the accessibility of will making in Mexico, stubborn cultural assumptions continue to deter the vast majority of eligible citizens from drawing one up. But lawyers, notaries and the government are determined to change the culture, both within Mexico and abroad.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Attorney Arelí Rey Flores has seen firsthand the devastating consequences of Mexico’s culture — or lack thereof, rather — of will making. 

“Families have been completely destroyed because of the lack of a will and the envy and greed that it can trigger in some relatives,” said Rey, who has practiced in Mexico City for nearly three decades. 

“We’ve been taught to believe that wills are for people with property and assets. You see it in the telenovelas: only rich people make wills, but that’s not true,” said Rey. “It’s very simple to go to any notary in the country and make one.”

Dying intestate, on the other hand, can lead to a long, difficult legal process for the family one leaves behind.

“It can really cause a scene when someone dies without a will,” said Rey. “There are proceedings that can take as long as two, three, five — even up to 10 years. It’s a real headache.”

Any property involved in this process cannot be claimed or used as long as the inheritance remains unresolved. Houses, businesses and other properties can fall into ruin while bickering families fight it out in court.

Anyone aged 16 and over can make a will in Mexico, whether or not they own property. Prices vary from state to state, but the procedure averages around $100 USD. 

Despite this accessibility, only 7% of eligible Mexicans have drawn up a last will and testament, according to Guillermo Escamilla Narváez, president of Mexico’s national notaries association. 

The strong cultural barrier to will making is the tallest hurdle Mexico faces to increasing this number, Escamilla said. The administrative requirements are easy to meet: be over 16, show a government ID and have about an hour for the appointment. 

“The fourth is the most important: the desire, the intention to do it,” said Escamilla. “Having people get past the pretexts for not creating one, that’s what we’re working on.”

In addition to the preconceived notion that only the wealthy make wills, adult children often find it difficult to broach the subject with parents. Many are worried their parents might take it as their children hoping to hurry their deaths along in order to receive their inheritances more quickly. 

But Escamilla said that the benefits to a family merit any possibly awkward conversations that may arise.

“There are steps that are necessary for us to take, and there are times when someone else has to nudge us to take them,” he said, comparing the task to how parents felt when they had to bring up the birds and the bees to their adolescent children.

“Speak to them with affection, similar to how they spoke to you about sex when you were younger,” said Escamilla. “They didn’t know how to do it back then. Put yourself in their shoes. The first step of accompanying them, bringing it up at the right time and place, is very important.”

Since 2003, the federal government has worked with the nation’s notaries on a project that can help encourage people to draw up wills, designating September the Month of the Will and offering discounts of up to 50% off the service.

The program “encourages the culture of will making, contributing to the certainty and legal security of the exercise of the right to inherit confers and thus protecting personal assets and family unity,” said Elisa Martínez, a legal adviser in the office of the Interior Secretary, which conducts the campaign.

Notaries in Mexico have worked with the federal government since 2003 to encourage will making both in Mexico and abroad. (Pixabay user advogadoaguilar via Courthouse News)

Thanks to this program, more than two thirds of the wills made in Mexico each year are drawn up from September to November. And Escamilla said they have started to see steady growth in recent years. There has been a 15% annual increase in the number of wills made since 2019, but the program isn’t the only driver of this trend.

“The government program has helped, and the pandemic was also an element that was taken into account to draw up more wills,” said Escamilla. More than 330,000 people have died of Covid-19 in Mexico, according to the World Health Organization, and this has caused many Mexicans to think about what will happen, not only to their belongings, but also to their offspring, when they die. 

Nearly 215,000 children in Mexico have been orphaned thanks to Covid-19, more than any other country in the world, according to Imperial College of London.

“In our will, we can state who will take care of our children, not only economically, but also who will take them by the hand and guide them with the values we want for them,” said Escamilla. 

Other factors like the earthquake that shook Mexico City in September 2017 and the extreme violence that has plagued Mexico for decades have also played a role in the steady increase in will making in recent years, Escamilla said. 

He and other notaries are working with another federal agency in hopes of replicating this growth among the largest population of Mexican citizens outside the country: those residing in the United States.

Nearly 11 million Mexican citizens live in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and they are just as eligible to make a will as their countrymen within Mexico. 

So the notaries association is working on a collaboration with the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs to implement a campaign in Mexican consulates in the United States to promote the process north of the border, as well.

“We’re seeing that those who are in the United States and cannot leave because of their immigration status, if they die and they’ve been sending money to their families or have property in Mexico, it creates an avoidable problem,” said Escamilla. 

Escamilla hopes to get the campaign underway sometime after the new year, but Mexican citizens in the United States need not wait for the campaign to begin in order to make a will. They can go to any Mexican consulate at any time and draw one up. 

For Escamilla and other notaries in Mexico, it’s about creating more stability and tranquility in the institution of the Mexican family.

“All of us know a family who was divided by the lack of a will,” he said. “The dispute for assets can create familial conflict, cause them to lose peace and end up splitting apart.”

Having also seen the devastating impacts an intestate death can have on a family, Rey, the attorney, agreed and urged her compatriots to change the culture of will making.

“So many families have been ruined because of matters of inheritance,” she said. “Making a will is an act of love for the family.”

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