This whole Coronavirus crisis reminded me that I wanted to write a blog about getting a Panama will—and it gave me the time to do it!
So, the process of getting a will isn’t the most stimulating topic, but it’s an important one if you own property in Panama.
I had three goals with this post:
- To save your loved ones from massive stress if you should happen to perish
- To try and save you from losing several hours of your life that you’ll never get back
- Give you a little peek into bureaucratic processes in Panama (with a little humor)
Several months after buying property in Panama, I contacted my U.S. estate attorney to find out how to add it to my living trust.
The short answer: you can’t. In fact, it’s not even valid to include it in your U.S. will.
The only way to ensure a Panama property is properly handled in the event of the owner’s death is to get a Panamanian will prepared by a Panamanian attorney.
This was the perfect opportunity to take a trial run with the attorney I had chosen for my future residency process and eventual business incorporation and consulting.
There was zero doubt that the attorney I chose was reputable—his firm had been recommended countless times in all of the expat Facebook groups I had been following for a couple of years.
Because of this, I knew he wasn’t going to be a bargain, so I wasn’t surprised that their quote for getting a Panama was $350-$400.
The steps for getting a Panama will:
With the exception of the last bullet point in this list, the process is super straightforward:
- Provide your attorney with a copy of the photo page of your passport and your marital status, profession, and physical address
- Send them the specifics of the assets to be included in the will, including a copy of the deed for all real property
- Give them the full name, email address, and scanned passport of each beneficiary
- Give them the full name and physical address of your executor (not a beneficiary)
- Give them the details of the inheritance
- Carefully review the first draft of the will they send to you and make changes/corrections as needed
- Carefully review the final draft to make sure it’s 100% correct
- Have the final will notarized in person in Panama (without this step, the will is not legally valid)
If you’re extremely lucky, the final step will take about a half day. But, don’t plan on it.
My personal experience…
I started the process writing an email (entirely in in English) to the Director of Customer Relations that had responded to a previous introductory email I had sent.
Once I approved the fee ($350, which included all expenses), I emailed them (in English) all the info on the above list. We exchanged a few emails (in English) fine tuning all of the details.
The office took credit cards and Paypal, so that saved me a trip to the bank and a $45 wire fee.
Three months later, I got the first final draft—in both Spanish and English. I only caught a few small issues and those were quickly corrected.
Once the will was done, it was limbo time. I wasn’t returning to Panama for another six months, so we agreed (in English) that I would touch base about a month before my arrival so they could make the notary appointment.
To cover my estate bases in the interim, I sent a copy of the final un-notarized draft to my local estate attorney and placed a copy in my trust binder so no one would forget about my Panama property.
So far, so good! I was feeling quite optimistic.
A Panamanian reality check…
Fast forward to mid-November.
I emailed the Director of Customer Relations (in English) to let them know the three days I’d be there in January so they could make the appointment.
One week, two week, three weeks went by…nada.
I emailed her again (in English) reminding her that I was waiting to hear about my appointment.
The attorney responded (in English) letting me know that the Director of Customer Relations was no longer with the firm and could I confirm if the January 27 appointment they had on their calendar was mine.
The next day, the Sales Manager confirmed the appointment and let me know that I just had to show up at their office at 10 a.m. on the day of the appointment.
(If you were watching a movie, this is the point where the impending doom sound byte begins to play quietly in the background.)
The big day arrives—and the nightmare began with the Uber ride to the attorney’s office.
Honestly, I can’t imagine being an Uber driver in Panama, so I don’t fault our driver that our 20 minute drive was actually a 40 minute drive.
Luckily, I’ve been to Panama enough times to have had the foresight to leave our Airbnb 45 minutes before my 10 a.m. appointment!
We walked into the office at 10 a.m. on the dot, and I was feeling quite proud of myself.
(The volume of the sound byte gets louder.)
For the next 2-1/2 hours, my partner and I sit in the waiting area of my own attorney’s office while the staff…well, honestly, I had absolutely no idea what in the hell they were doing, since the will just needed to be printed out and notarized!
Finally, a (really) young woman came out and said she was ready to walk with us to the notary’s office around the corner.
Digging deep for patience and kindness, I politely asked why we had been left to wait for so long since the will had been completed six months ago. The answer was so vague, I honestly can’t even remember what it was.
We waited another hour at the notary before being ushered into a small room dominated by a round table and several chairs.
When the usher left, our young chaperone semi-looked at me and with a shaky voice said: “If they ask you if you speak Spanish, say yes.”
Uh, wait…what? Did you not get the memo that I do NOT speak Spanish??? And, I am a horrible liar! And, most importantly, why would I do that???
But, there was no time to actually speak these words.
A guy who I assumed to be a notary walked into the room and started speaking (in Spanish) with our chaperone. My heart started doing that thing where you can hear it in your head.
Then, he turned to me, rattled off an entire paragraph in Spanish, paused with expectation, and I…froze like a deer in the headlights.
(Awkward silence then an even louder sound byte.)
Mr. Notary turns back to the girl, who now looks very angsty, and rattled off some firmer sounding Spanish and walked out.
I turned expectantly to our distressed chaperone and she replied before I even spoke…
“Because you don’t speak Spanish, they are requiring two certified interpreters.”
She focused on gathering my paperwork and deflected my inquiry as to why this was coming up now with a heartfelt promise to try her hardest to find one so we could get this done before I left the city in 36 hours.
At this point, it was clear to me that a significant ball had been dropped.
Despite speaking only English with them for nearly a year, no one had noted that in my file. This was why we had waited for 2+ hours in their office and why we were stuck in a holding pattern in an uninteresting part of Panama City for the next several hours.
Before we started to wander around, I emailed the attorney and asked him to help in the search for a translator so I didn’t leave Panama without a notarized will.
First stop—Panafoto, where we found out that we won’t be able to get ink for our American printer in Panama and got into a ridiculous argument about the size of our future TV.
Second stop—a curb in front of the notary where I would sit and fume at attorneys, and men, for a couple of hours without any food. 😂
The final visit to the notary room was with our chaperone, one certified translator (who I was informed was going to cost me $100), two witnesses, and two notary officials. (The other translator is my attorney. I’m still confused about this.)
And, it went something like this…
- Our chaperone stands off to the side
- The two mystery witnesses stand off to the side
- My translator reads the entire Spanish will to me in English and ensures that I understand every clause (no one even blinks when she reads the part about my attorney and two different witnesses than the two standing off to the side being present.)
- I tried to look less like a deer in the headlights and more like a capable woman who completely understood what was going on
- I signed and fingerprinted my will
After everyone left, but our chaperone, I turned to her and ask (in English) what the heck happened.
Finally, she says the words I had been wanting to hear—“Because we didn’t know that you didn’t speak Spanish.” (My partner did a fine job at calming me down in this moment.)
They weren’t able to get the will 100% done before I left the city for Playa Venao—and I forgot to get it on the day before I flew back home. 🤦♀️
So, for now, I have a PDF copy of my notarized Panama will and no plans to return until I’m back in Panama for good next January. I forwarded this copy, along with my Panama attorney’s contact info, to my U.S. attorney. Works for me!
Tips for Getting a Will in Panama
Eight hours after walking out the front door of our Airbnb in Casco Viejo, we walked back in and threw ourselves down on the bed with gusto.
Though I never did see the man with his name on the law firm door, we did exchange some (pleasant) emails so we could discuss what happened.
In short, on their side, it was a combination of staff turnover and complete lack of communication.
Despite the fact that I’d been communicating entirely in English for about a year, apparently those that did the actual work were never informed of this, so everything wasn’t prepared correctly and no translator was ordered.
On the notary’s side, it was a highly unusual, but not unheard of, requirement to have a second translator. Apparently my deer in the headlights expression convinced him that I was a two-translator case. 😄
Later, I did hear from a certified Panamanian translator that, although it’s very rare for a notary to require two translators, it definitely can and does happen. Even to her, it makes no sense, but that’s Panama!
Here are some tips that I hope will help your experience getting a Panama will as smooth as possible:
- Be clear on what is included in the price your attorney quotes—i.e., does it include the notary fee, certified translators, etc.?
- Ask your attorney what forms of payment he/she accepts—remember, that a wire will add on $25-$45 to the cost.
- Make 100% sure that your attorney is Panamanian.
- If you don’t speak Spanish, let them know in the beginning, middle and end of this process.
- A week before your notary appointment, check in with them. Make sure the appointment is still set and, if you don’t speak Spanish, that they have at least one certified translator booked.
- If they’re only booking one certified translator, suggest that they have a second one on call.
- Allot an entire day to notarize your will even though they tell you that it will only take a few hours.
- Expect at least one thing to go wrong!
My biggest disappointment
After I reflected on my experience getting a Panama will, I realized that I was most disappointed with the complete lack of any personal relationship with my attorney.
I had told myself the story that I had been building one over the past year, but they really had no idea who I was or what language I spoke.
My Panama attorney is going to be the professional I rely on most from the day I arrive to the day I leave (hopefully many years down the road)—helping me with residency, incorporation, a living trust, and running my future business.
Of course, integrity is most important, and, yes, I have to let go of a lot of wants and needs, but relationships are extremely important to me so I’m not going to give in on this one.
I made a mental note to interview some of the other reputable attorneys on my long list after I got home.
And, then karma paid me another couple of quick visits…
The former Sales Manager, now new Director of Customer Relations, let me know they weren’t going to charge me the $100 for the additional translator.
The very next day, while touring potential investment properties, the real estate agent gave me the name of an attorney he highly recommended. (I’ll be honest…I was thrilled to hear that it was a woman.)
I WhatsApped, we met (and bonded) the day before I flew home. 😍
I’m hopeful that my future blog on getting my residency will be a testament to what two strong women can do—even in Panama!