UAE legal reforms: how divorce and inheritance laws have changed

Overhaul of country's personal status laws means Sharia will rarely be used for non-citizens

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Sweeping changes are being made to the UAE's personal status laws, with some of the most significant updates affecting divorce and inheritance.

The UAE government announced the overhaul of parts of its legal system on Saturday. The changes mean Islamic law, or Sharia, will rarely be used when it comes to family-law cases for non-citizens.

So what has changed and how will this affect the country's citizens and residents? The National explains.

What has changed?

Amendments to the UAE's personal status laws, some of which were first written in 1987, mean the country will now offer expatriates a path to divorce that is not governed by local law, which is based on Islamic law, or Sharia.

A couple from any religion that chooses to divorce in the UAE will have proceedings dictated by the laws of the country in which they married.

UAE makes changes to the law

UAE makes changes to the law

What was the law previously?

Previously, Muslim couples had Sharia applied to the division of assets, support payment requirements and child custody agreements.

Until now, non-Muslim expatriates who divorced in the UAE could choose either to have Sharia applied or request to have the laws of their home country applied instead. If the couple had different passports, then the citizenship of the husband would apply. And if the law of the individual's home country failed to cover an aspect of the divorce procedure, then the courts could apply UAE law instead.

Now, the personal status law of the country where the marriage took place will be applied.

What does this mean?

It is a dramatic change for couples who may have otherwise had to go through lengthy and cumbersome procedures to finalise a divorce and divide their assets.

The new law also mentions joint assets and accounts and says the court could be called on to mediate if there is no agreement between the two parties.

Changing the applicable jurisdiction over a divorce settlement could have dramatically different implications in respect of financial outcomes for each party.

The updated law will ensure there will be no need for petitions or conflict over whose laws should apply.

While the law includes the division of assets, it does not mention child custody laws.

Inheritance will not be determined based on the deceased's citizenship, rather than sharia law.
Inheritance will not be determined based on the deceased's citizenship, rather than sharia law.

How have inheritance laws changed?

Saturday's changes also cover wills and inheritance. Until now, family members of a deceased person, particularly in acrimonious cases, could have found assets were divided under Islamic law, which residents may be unused to, and can be an unequal division for men and women.

Previously, only a non-Muslim expatriate could petition the court for their country's laws to be applied when managing their assets on their death, while a Muslim resident of the UAE would automatically have Sharia applied. If a non-Muslim expatriate had not petitioned for their home country's laws to be applied to their will on their death, then the UAE's courts would automatically apply Sharia.

Now, a person's citizenship will dictate how their assets are divided among their next of kin. An individual's inheritance will be divided according to their citizenship at the time of death, irrespective of religion. If a will is drafted, it would be followed. If an individual did not draft a will before their death, the law of the country of citizenship would apply.

The one exception is for property bought in the UAE, which will be managed according to Sharia if a will was not submitted.

How is inheritance managed under Sharia?

Under Sharia, all assets, including property, finances and even outstanding debts, will be inherited by the individual's eligible heirs. Eligible heirs do not include illegitimate or adopted children and divorced women cannot claim from a former husband's estate if they have been divorced for more than about three months (the time allocated in Islam to determine if the woman is pregnant).

Inheritance laws under Sharia are quite complicated and depend on how many eligible heirs an individual has as well as their familial relationships to the deceased.

Primary heirs, who are always entitled to a share of an inheritance, include: the deceased's spouse, parents, children and grandchildren.

But the deceased's grandparents, siblings and nieces and nephews could also be eligible for a share of the inheritance if the individual was unmarried or had no living parents.

Inheritance under Islam typically allocates a larger share of assets to male heirs than female heirs, with the expectation that men would be responsible and support women.

Usually, a daughter would receive half the assets her brother would inherit from their father.

How are wills currently registered?

Non-Muslim expatriates can register a will with the UAE courts.

Wills registered at Dubai International Financial Centre’s wills and probate registry cover resident and investor assets across the UAE, as well as internationally.

In Abu Dhabi, non-Muslims have been able to register a will at the emirate’s Judicial Department since 2017.

Law firms in the UAE report an increase in inquiries about wills since the Covid-19 outbreak.