Property inheritance in UAE: Will a will help?

Max James (name changed), a British national, lived three years of his life in the UAE.

Sadly, he passed away leaving behind two minor daughters and his wife.

During his Dubai stint, James bought a Dh5 million apartment on the Palm Jumeirah, had two cars, and left some money in his bank accounts.

James believed he was too young to prepare for an unpredictable future and never approached a lawyer to protect his family’s future for the day when he would not be there to cuddle them or read a bed-time story.

“We were not prepared and only realised how messy things could get once he was not there.

“We are all educated, but never really thought of securing our future. It’s easier to earn money than safeguard it and I learnt it only when I had to deal with the mess - right from custody of my children to property ownership,” said James’ wife on the condition of anonymity.

Most expats love Dubai and for many, it is a second home. They buy property here, make it a home and see their kids graduate.

But what they forget is that with one stroke of bad luck, everything could change.

Many reports in the media suggest that a will can safeguard the interest of your family if something were to happen to you.

While it, indeed can, there could still be circumstances where it might not be able to fulfill your wishes as expected.

The will can safeguard your interest as far as your moveable assets are concerned but it might fall short if you have immovable assets in the country.

For example, if you have money in bank account, deposits, gold in safe lockers, cars, etc., these will be distributed as per your wish, but if you have a house, your will may not be the only document that decides who the beneficiaries may be.

What the law says

“The Civil Transactions Law of the country applies to real estate inheritance in the county. The same law outlines the procedure,” Diana Hamade, Attorney at Law & Legal Consultant, UAE Courts & DIFC Courts, International Advocate Legal Services, explains to Emirates 24|7.

“While a sub-article of the said article states that if a person dies in the UAE, then the law of her/his country shall apply when it comes to the disposition of his real estate assets in the country.

“However, the subsequent article states that all assets including real estate shall be governed by the UAE law,” she said.

Hamade says, “The UAE Personal Status Law is one of the most modern in the region and it says that if the deceased person is of another religion (non-Muslim) then her/his religion shall apply.”

On the face of it, it may seem that in that case, a house, which is perhaps the biggest asset one may have, will end up in the hands of those that the deceased owner mentions in his will.

Shariah court

However, if there is a dispute, it will be decided in a Shariah court, and this might alter the equation.

“All inheritance cases are fought in the Shariah court and the judges in these courts are less versed with the civil courts of other countries so it is quite impossible for them to hear and give judgments that are based on the civil law of another country. In a nutshell, all matters are decided as per Shariah,” said Hamade.

The silver lining is that cases may be transferred to civil courts and that may be the deciding factor, but it is not happening yet.

“In order for the courts to be able to apply the law, expats family law cases including inheritance can be transferred to civil courts where the lawyers and judges are competent to hear cases based on the civil law of other countries.

“The Law is in its current draft and a precedent of the Court of Cassation states that expats can have their own laws applied to their cases.

“The fact that the judges choose to apply Shariah law on such cases, may change any time, therefore, a will is a must; otherwise, a probate judgment from a foreign court can be brought for enforcement before the UAE courts in relation to the assets of the deceased, although the substantial fees payable in this case may deter people from pursuing this proceeding,” stressed Hamade, who has seen many bitter battles being fought in a courtroom between those who are closest and bound by blood ties.

Will in place

So, in its current state, what must an expat do to ensure that the assets are passed on to the ones that the deceased chose?

The best possible way is to have a will in place and ensure that the extended family (the possible beneficiaries as per Shariah), relinquish their rights to ensure that everything goes to the immediate family.

If this doesn’t happen, the battles play out in the court.

Money leads to many family fights and a will is a simple solution to keep the gravity of these tussles at a minimum level.

A will can become extremely important if the law is amended and inheritance cases are transferred to civil courts.

In the meantime, a will is also very important in deciding other factors. For example, the custody of children can be in jeopardy if a will is not in place.

“The males from the father’s side of the family will have the role of the guardian of the children’s money and assets. The guardianship role is very critical in the lives of the custodian of the children, who is the mother since all of her spending will be controlled by the guardian and supervised by the court,” added Hamade.

This was a lesson that James’ wife learnt at a time when her life had already fallen apart. “Did I know a paper could change everything?” she said.

“I would say everybody should have a will in place. It’s much more important than a sports car or a collection of Louis Vuitton bags that we love to have in Dubai.

“Make a will, take control of your life and don’t take chances with the future of those you love the most,” she advises.

(Home page image courtesy Shutterstock)

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