Heir Bare: When Grandma Leaves All Her Money To Charity

Who's going to inherit the surf board?
Who's going to inherit the surf board?
Anna Lietti

GENEVA – Marie-Gisèle Sandoz lives by herself, and has no children or siblings.

When the retiree decided it was time to make a will, it didn't take long to decide who would be the benificiaries: three-quarters of her assets will go to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. "Ecology has always been an interest of mine and I like the idea of doing something for the environment even after I’m gone," she explained. "They do good work and they’re less aggressive than Greenpeace."

The WWF will thus be the beneficiary of Sandoz’s small apartment in the Zürcher Oberland in northern Switzerland, where the former executive secretary from Neuchâtel has chosen to spend her retirement.

But had she had any doubts about which charity to choose, Sandoz could have gone to -- a platform where 18 NGOs describe what they do and provide thousands of useful tips to future "donors from beyond," as they were affectionately dubbed by Vincent Maunoury, responsible for legacies at Terre des Hommes (a Swiss children’s rights charity).

Philanthropists such as Sandoz are still relatively rare. Out of the $32 billion inherited every year in Switzerland, for example, only 1 to 1.5% goes to charity.

"The problem," as Sandoz puts it, "is that we don’t like to talk about death. Which means that most people aren’t prepared when the time comes..." Organizations have to find a way of making themselves known without looking like macabre vultures.

Communication is the key. MyHappyEnd has recently launched an online competition for the best artistic homage to benefactors. Who are these benefactors? A rich woman from Zurich, for instance, bequeathed more than $3 million to the Salvation Army in 2010.

Unhappy families

People without close relatives are usually more likely to put donations to charities into their wills, according to Samy Darwish, MyHappyEnd president. He handles about 20 such cases per year. At Terre des hommes, Vincent Maunoury tries to describe the typical donor: a woman, aged 50 to 60, sometimes very rich, although not necessarily. And at peace with their family? This is a sensitive subject.

"In seven years, I've never seen anyone leaving money or property to an NGO just to spite their family," assures Darwish. Still, even when there are no direct relatives, leaving everything to charities almost always means that a distant cousin ends up denied his inheritance. And for people who do have children, the gesture plainly says, "You shall have what you are legally entitled to, but nothing more."

"Our donors’ decisions do not always please families," admits Maunoury, who handles 60 cases per year for Terre des Hommes -- 5 to 10 % of which prove "problematic." The main source of disputes comes when people’s wills are "unclear," which is why charities highly recommend that people use a notary when making their wills.

Late changes to a will, for instance, usually spell trouble, says Maunoury. "Sometimes families accuse us of forcing people’s hands, although we are only respecting the last wishes of a person who acts out of conviction."

An increasing number of people are starting to divide their assets among several charities. Vincent Maunoury recalls the recent example of a widow in Lausanne whose will included 60 heirs, 52 of which were NGOs.

Marie-Gisèle Sandoz made things easier for everyone by sticking to the WWF. She even told her second cousins, with whom she is on excellent terms. "I wrote them a letter and told them about giving my money to ‘a charity.’ Maybe I should have been more specific... Well, I'll show them this article!"

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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