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.”
“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.”
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 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.