Expatriates advised to learn laws on wills

Without one the process of accessing and dividing assets is a long and complicated one, experts warn.

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DUBAI // Expatriates in the UAE would be wise to understand the laws governing wills and inheritances, or they could end up facing a complex process as they navigate the aftermath of a spouse's death, legal experts and estate planners say.

Mohammad Marria, an estate planner at Just Wills, a company based in Dubai, said many people do not understand the legal implications of such cases.

"Your will is the most important piece of paper you will ever sign," he said. "It is your last wishes on how you would like your estate to be distributed, and it's not just about money and property; it is also about safeguarding the welfare of children.

"Without the document, things could get pretty nasty and messy."

In 2009, according to the Dubai Health Authority, 1,572 expatriates died in Dubai. For those who died without a will, their property was distributed according to a formula fixed by UAE law.

"If you do not have a will, you do not have anything to base on as to how your estates are distributed," Mr Marria said.

In the absence of a will, Sharia law automatically applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims. That means, for example, that the wife of a deceased husband would receive one-eighth of the total value of her husband's assets. The deceased's parents would receive one-sixth, and for every share received by the daughters, surviving sons would receive twice as much.

The only exception to Sharia law being followed upon death is if the beneficiaries elect to use the inheritance laws of their home country. That can be tricky, however.

To apply foreign laws in probate procedures, individuals must provide to the court a detailed, attested copy of the law certified by their respective consulate or embassy in their place of residence.

But according to a source at Dubai Courts, judges rarely allow that option.

"We have had people who have tried to give their whole estate to their pets, which is against Sharia law. Judges often undertake the Sharia-based principles," said the source, who wished to remain anonymous.

The probate process in the UAE begins with the freezing of the deceased person's assets. No one, including the person's survivors, can gain access to the assets until the case has made its way through the courts.

Jasem Mohammed, a corporate banker based in Abu Dhabi, said a death notice from the Central Bank is the trigger.

"The Central Bank issues a memorandum to all the banks, after which the banks circulate it to all their branches," he said. "The accounts are immediately frozen by stopping all payments from the account; however, all payments deposited are kept active."

At that point, the courts start an estate audit that is designed to divide up the inheritance. The heirs or a representative with power of attorney can withdraw money from the accounts only through a court order.

Otherwise, Mr Mohammed said, the heirs must wait for the process to come to an end, which can take months.

"In the case of joint accounts, the court contacts the involved parties and reviews the percentage of shares of the deceased before unfreezing the account," he said.

If the person has a partnership in a company, that company's account is made inaccessible to any partner until the deceased is severed from the trade license and any partnership contract, he added.

Until last year, Dubai Courts accepted only wills attested by the diplomatic mission of the deceased, but it recently introduced a new policy in which wills can be attested by a notary public in Dubai.

Applicants who wish to have their wills attested must provide proof of ownership of the assets in the will. Applications must be submitted in person or by a representative holding power of attorney.

Although this policy was instituted to improve services offered to the public by the courts, said Abdullah Abdul Wahid al Ali, who works at the Dubai Notary Public Department, attesting the will does not necessarily mean it will be implemented - that is up to the court's discretion.

These complexities make dying in the UAE without a will a persistent worry for expatriates.

"The wills talks are very emotive," said Jo Baker, an events organiser for Expat Woman. It is holding three events on the subject this year, up from two last year, because they are so popular.

The main concern for many is that their children and their assets will not be taken care of in the manner they had stipulated.

Imke Cochran, 36, a businesswoman from Germany, said there was a lot uncertainty surrounding probate law in the UAE.

"It seems like there are lots of legal commentators," she said. "There are different rumours [and] unclear situations." She and her husband had written wills before, she said, but were unsure if they were valid here.

Susan Pilkington, 46, a housewife from the US, attended an Expat Woman event last month in an attempt to understand the situation.

"I have a young child. Every parent worries what would happen if we were not around," she said. "You have to think about the morbid."