Illness more often complicating end-of-life affairs

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Illness more often complicating end-of-life affairs

It’s been seven years since Mr. Jeong filed a lawsuit against his siblings to settle an inheritance dispute worth more than 2.5 billion won ($2.3 million). But unlike most cases that start with the absence of a will from the deceased, Jeong’s battle began when it turned out that his father had left behind two.

His second will entirely contradicted the first and - notably - was written while Jeong’s father was suffering from dementia.

In his first will, he named Jeong, his eldest son who is now 64 years old, as the sole claimant of his entire estate. But the second will requested that his first son “share the fortune” with Jeong’s two brothers and one sister.

The first and second trials ruled in Jeong’s favor, with the court declaring that a will written by someone with a degenerative brain disease is invalid.

But when the Supreme Court judged differently and sent the case back to a lower court, arguing that it needed further medical judgment, Jeong decided to defend himself a bit differently - by raising questions about his father’s handwriting in the second document.

“It looked like it was written by a completely different person,” said Jeong, who refused to reveal his full name. “I put it up for authentication, and those experts told me they couldn’t guarantee it was written by my father.”

Jeong added that the results were “additional proof” he will submit to the court.

It’s unclear precisely how many people in today’s aging Korean society are facing similar circumstances, but recent testimonies from document authentication offices hint that the number is likely on a sharp rise.

One handwriting authentication expert working in Seocho District, southern Seoul, who requested anonymity, said the number of his clients asking to verify documents written by senior citizens over age 70 has “more than doubled or tripled” lately.

Another handwriting analyst working nearby surnamed Kim, 43, largely agreed with that assessment, even estimating that the trend was three or four years old by now.

Doctors in Korea contribute that increase to the rise in patients diagnosed with dementia.

Data from Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service shows that the number of people treated for the disease has risen 82.7 percent over the past five years.

Those who died from the illness peaked, to 266,000 in 2013 from 244,000 in 2007.

“Exercising abilities [and motor skills] tend to worsen in the final stages of dementia,” said Na Deok-ryeol, a neurologist at Samsung Medical Center in Gangnam District, southern Seoul.

“Letters written by those patients decrease, like someone with Parkinson’s disease, or [the handwriting and quality] generally degenerate due to shaky hands.”

To rectify the issue, Seong Su-jeong, vice head of the National Institute of Dementia, recommends confronting the fear that writing a will brings bad luck.

“Many Koreans still feel uncomfortable about writing a will,” Seong said, “but given the weight of the material, it’s important to shape a social atmosphere that pushes people to be prepared early on.”

BY HAN YEONG-IK [selee@joongang.co.kr]




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