Abu Dhabi wills that claim to avoid Sharia law ‘ripping off’ expatriates

Tags: Estate Planning,News

20 May, 2017

As published in The National
Shireena Al Nowais

ABU DHABI // Law firms that offer to draft wills guaranteeing that the assets of non-Muslim expatriates will not be subject to Sharia in the event of their death are duping their customers, experts say.

Presently, there is no registry of wills for non-Muslim expatriates in Abu Dhabi, which means that law firms’ claims that they can secure their clients’ assets in the emirate are misleading.

One law firm registered at Dubai International Financial Centre was shocked by the number of invalid wills it saw.

“Previously, there was no clear mechanism for the registration of wills for non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi,” said Hesham Elrafei, a legal expert and founder of legal video channel Lex Animata.

“Instead, Sharia determines how a deceased non-Muslim’s assets in Abu Dhabi are distributed.”

However, non-Muslim expats could request the application of the law of their home country, in keeping with the UAE’s personal status law, said Mr Elrafei.

Few expats are aware of this clause. In any case, “they still have to bring in a certified last updated copy of the law in their home country, have it translated and then certified. It is an uncertain, lengthy and expensive process”, said Mr Elrafei.

In most cases, Sharia would apply and the court would immediately freeze the assets – including the end of service gratuity – of the deceased to ensure that all the heirs are contacted before the estate is distributed.

In one incident, a non-Muslim, western expat spent more than a year on a legal battle to get her late husband’s end-of-service benefits.

“She tried to avoid the application of Sharia on her late husband’s inheritance but that was in vain,” said Mr Elrafei.

“The court gave her a small percentage of her husband’s benefits and distributed the rest to his heirs abroad, seeing that no registered will was in place.”

Joseph Law, 45, was told by a law firm in Dubai that his will would cover his assets in both emirates.

Mr Law said that he drew up a will to ensure that his wife and children would be taken care of.

“You hear all these horror stories of accounts being frozen and wives and children being left with no money or a place to stay.

“That’s a harrowing experience that I don’t want my wife or anyone to go through while they are grieving.”

Indian K T, whose husband died suddenly of cardiac arrest three years ago, was hit hard by the experience.

“I was suddenly alone with two young girls. My late husband’s accounts were frozen and his assets seized,” she said.

“I had just lost our main breadwinner and had no funds. If not for a few good friends, we would have had nowhere to go. It’s a traumatic experience.

“It took me months to get a hold of my husband’s funds, and I consider myself extremely lucky and fortunate for that.

“It’s taken years for many women in similar situations. There needs to be a clear system in place to deal with inheritance of non-Muslims living here.”

Mr Law’s lawyers advised him that his will was under the jurisdiction of the UAE’s federal law, but this is not possible.

Even for non-Muslim expats who have assets in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, they must have their wills registered exclusively in the capital, said Mr Elrafei.

The Dubai International Financial Centre’s wills and probate registry, a Dubai Government entity, is the only registration system for wills in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sean Hird, the registry’s director, said that 2,500 wills had been registered since its inception in 2015.

“Abu Dhabi didn’t have a registration system. They followed UAE-wide policy on inheritance, which is Sharia that provides for fixed distribution of assets when someone passes away,” he said.

“The registry is the first of its kind – a system that allows eligible non-Muslims to register a will with us and have it enforced in the DIFC courts.

“The registration system we have here is limited to assets in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. We do not extend to Abu Dhabi.”

This year, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, announced the establishment of a court in Abu Dhabi to deal with non-Muslim family law and inheritance affairs.

Legal experts hope that it will address the inheritance matters of non-Muslim residents.

“The establishment of a new family court dedicated to non-Muslims is a unique and great initiative that not only reflects the UAE values of tolerance and modernisation, among others, but it will also facilitate the registration of wills for non-Muslims in one official hub,” said Mr Elrafei.

“We are hopeful that non-Muslim expats will feel more secure as Abu Dhabi Courts will protect their registered wills according to their choice and not Sharia, as previously was the case.”