Covid-19 uncertainty spurs more families to draft their wills

The pandemic is driving households to safeguard their assets and guardianship of children

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , August 10 – 2020 :- Dr J.S. Rajkumar with his wife Dr Chitrakala Rajkumar at the Medstar Hospital in Dubai. They have taken out a will during the pandemic in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Business. Story by Deepthi Nair
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When Dr JS Rajkumar and his wife, Dr Chitrakala Rajkumar, volunteered to work at a Covid-19 isolation centre in Al Warsan, in April, they knew they would be exposed to the deadly coronavirus for extended periods of time and understood the health risks they were taking.

“We saw the devastating effects of Covid-19 from close quarters," says Dr Rajkumar, a general and laparoscopic surgeon who is also the medical director of a Covid-19 ward at Medstar Healthcare in Dubai. "We knew that if something untoward were to happen to one of us, things would get difficult for the surviving spouse.”

Although we had been thinking of making a will, the need to create it was precipitated by the pandemic

Dr Rajkumar, 57, and Dr Chitrakala, also 57, have been in the UAE for the past two years. Dr Chitrakala is an internal medicine specialist and oversees the financial and administrative aspects of their businesses in India. The medics are the founders of the Lifeline Hospital group in the south Indian city of Chennai.

“Although we had been thinking of making a will, the need to create it was precipitated by the pandemic. We realised this was not the time to dilly dally because we have a problem at hand,” says Dr Rajkumar.

He was among a group of about 60 doctors in the UAE who recently got together and are in the process of registering single and mirror wills with the help of a local law firm. The doctor said he paid about Dh5,000 to create a mirror will for his wife and himself.

A single will caters to individuals, while mirror wills are for couples.

K. Balasubramaniam, an Indian expatriate in Dubai, is in the process of drafting wills both in the UAE and India. Courtesy K. Balasubramaniam

Law firms in the UAE have reported an increase in inquiries about wills since the outbreak of the pandemic.

“We have experienced a marked increase in will inquiries since March of this year,” says Tasleem Sayani, a partner at James Berry & Associates in Dubai, who specialises in wills and inheritance. “There is more awareness on the need to have a correctly drafted and executed will in place for UAE-based assets and guardianship of minor children. The pandemic has made many people, especially those with families, realise the importance of having their succession affairs in order.”

K Balasubramaniam, 51, who has been in the UAE since 2008 and runs a digital marketing agency in Dubai, had long planned to create a will for his assets both here and at home in India.

“The thought of a will occurred to me a few times earlier when I came to know of friends who had joint accounts and upon their demise, their assets were frozen. With a lot of freak events, including Covid-19, occurring this year, I decided to have my succession planning in place,” says Mr Balasubramaniam.

He approached a law firm to draft a mirror will to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances in the future. The entrepreneur also wants to safeguard the future of his daughter and son.

Mr Balasubramaniam paid Dh7,000 to draft and register the will at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department (ADJD). This includes a professional fee, including VAT, of Dh4,500, a translation fee of about Dh900 and a notarisation fee of Dh1,900.

“I have drafted wills simultaneously for both India and the UAE. It’s a simple, straightforward process. You don’t have to disclose all your assets in the will. You only have to provide details of your family and beneficiaries,” he says.

The process of will registration in the UAE can be done digitally in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, to draft his Indian will, Mr Balasubramaniam needed to have two witnesses accompany him to the agency in Dubai to verify his documents.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Devanand Mahadeva, lawyer with Goodwins law firm from Dubai on February 4, 2019. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Devanand Mahadeva, director and head of inheritance and personal law practice at Goodwins Solicitors & Legal Consultants, says his firm has seen an almost 200 per cent increase in inheritance-related business between April and July compared with the same period last year. There has also been increased interest to draft a will from professionals in certain sectors such as healthcare and real estate.

“Many expats, especially people from the subcontinent, don’t consider the need for a will as a priority. Western expats are generally savvy about inheritance planning. The reality of the risk of the pandemic has sunk in. People are experiencing demises of near and dear ones. We are also doing quite a bit of probate work, so that the assets can be transferred to legal heirs,” says Mr Mahadeva.

UAE residents can draft a will themselves or hire a law firm and choose to get the document registered at the ADJD, Dubai Courts or DIFC Courts Wills Service. Wills can be registered online at the ADJD and DIFC Courts Wills Service, but in the case of Dubai Courts, the testator will have to go in person to sign the document.

“Clients are primarily interested in registering their wills at the DIFC Courts Wills Service or at the ADJD,” says Ms Sayani of James Berry & Associates.

The overall cost for a couple to draft and register their will at the ADJD or Dubai Courts amounts to between Dh7,500 and Dh8,000 and the process takes a couple of weeks.

Shannon Herriot, manager and senior compliance officer, DIFC Courts Wills Service. Courtesy Shannon Herriot

The DIFC Courts Wills Service registers five types of wills:

  • A full will, which allows you to include all assets (moveable and immoveable) that you own in the UAE as well as guardianship for minor children
  • A guardianship will
  • A property will that allows you to include up to five properties in the UAE
  • A business owner will that allows you to include up to five shares in businesses you own in the UAE
  • A financial assets will that allows you to include up to 10 accounts in the UAE

While the DIFC Courts Wills Service website has a template for the property will, business owner will and financial assets will, for the full will and guardianship will, clients need to either draft it themselves or see a lawyer who is registered with the centre. The DIFC Courts Wills Service has registered more than 6,000 wills since its inception in 2015.

The cost to register a will with the DIFC Courts Wills Service ranges from Dh5,000 to Dh15,000, depending on the type of will you are drafting.

A single will costs Dh10,000, while a mirror will costs Dh15,000, according to Shannon Herriot, manager and senior compliance officer at the DIFC Courts Wills Service.

“A single guardianship will costs Dh5,000, while a mirror guardianship will costs Dh7,500. A single property will costs Dh7,500 and a mirror property will amounts to Dh10,000. A single business owner’s will costs Dh5,000 and a mirror business owner’s will comes up to Dh7,500. A single financial assets will costs Dh5,000 and a mirror financial assets will comes up to Dh7,500.”

Ms Herriot adds that the DIFC Courts Wills Service has not seen a dramatic increase in will registrations since the outbreak of Covid-19. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of bookings since July, but it’s not unlike the numbers we have seen in previous years,” she says.

The DIFC Courts Wills Service provides a video conferencing option to register wills. The individual and two witnesses can join a video conferencing call and electronically sign the will through a dedicated portal.

Tasleem Sayani, a partner at James Berry & Associates in Dubai, says her company has seen a marked increase in will enquiries since March. Courtesy: James Berry & Associates

In the absence of a will in the UAE, Sharia inheritance law will apply to how an individual’s estate is divided, meaning they lose the right to distribute assets as per their wishes.

“Without a will, it is unlikely that the assets would be inherited by the deceased’s chosen individuals, or in the required shares," Ms Sayani adds. "In the absence of a valid will, the local estate may be distributed in accordance with the provisions set out by Sharia law, which primarily benefits blood relatives in fixed shares. Guardianship of minor children is another consideration which will be determined by Sharia law in the absence of a valid will.”

For example, if a husband passes away without a will in place, as per Sharia law, the wife will only get a one-eighth share of the husband’s estate, while the remaining assets will go to the husband’s parents and children, where a boy gets double the girl’s share, says Mr Mahadeva.

“If a woman dies without a will, the husband gets a slightly better deal [one-fourth share of the whole estate], while the rest goes to her parents and children,” the lawyer adds.

Legal experts say that if you own assets in the UAE and there are guardianship considerations for resident minor children, it is more efficient and cost-effective to register a local will rather than rely on a succession document drafted overseas.

The DIFC Courts Wills Service does not recognise a foreign will. In the case of a foreign will, the individual must go to a local court in the UAE, where a judge will decide if he will consider a foreign will or whether he will revert to the law of the local jurisdiction.

“Foreign wills can be validated in the UAE, but it is an expensive affair,” says Mr Mahadeva. "To implement a locally made will in Abu Dhabi, it takes about two to three weeks. In the UK or India, it takes about a year to implement a will. In the interim, all assets such as bank accounts and properties get frozen and the beneficiaries suffer. A local document is easier to implement.”

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