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What happens after an expat's death

Having a will should help the deceased's family settle affairs.

Gulf News

While the UAE is an expat-friendly state and obviously does not treat foreigners' assets without sympathy in the event of death, complications can still arise, especially if there is no valid will in place.

If an expatriate dies in the UAE, both individual and joint bank accounts in the country will be frozen. This applies to local and international banks where deposits are placed in UAE accounts (as opposed to offshore accounts).

According to Rasha Al Saeed, lawyer at Baker Botts, a surviving spouse will not have immediate access to money bank accounts in the UAE, even money bank accounts held jointly in the names of both spouses.

"These accounts will remain frozen until probate is granted by a UAE court and all the deceased's debts in the UAE (including parking tickets and other fines) are repaid. However, accounts maintained in other countries are not subject to this process."

Patricia Parker, resident lawyer at Holborn Assets, says the accounts will still be frozen even if a will has been written, "but the existence of a will is almost certain to speed the unfreezing process".

Without a will, the surviving family of the deceased will have to present every conceivable piece of evidence of their relationship. "At its simplest, a surviving spouse may have been the joint account holder and this will be easily proven. All documentary evidence will have to be presented to the Sharia court and evidence of clearance of all debts.

"However, without a will, Sharia law will apply, which favours the male line. [It's] difficult to say how long the process [will take] but the weaker the documentation, the more difficult and time consuming this will be," Parker adds.

The same principle also applies to other movable assets of the expatriate such as gold, bonds, etc.

Without a will, the general view is that Sharia will prevail over the intestacy (inheritance) law of the expat's home country.

"Under the Civil Code of 2005 in the UAE, foreigners can elect to have their assets disposed of under their own laws and exclude Sharia law. However, these rights can only be expressed in a will. Without a will, UAE and Sharia law will almost certainly prevail for the disposition of real property," Parker says.

This doesn't mean the government will take over the property if no will has been written. Ultimately, the real estate will be handed over to family members, but there's a chance it may not be allocated as the owner would have wished. Legal snags are likely to surface as well, considering that surviving relatives will have to go to Sharia courts to prove relationships and entitlements.

"Under UAE law, real property owned by a deceased person will be transferred once the interests of each of the heirs [is] determined. Sharia provides for specific allocations of rights in real property. If there are multiple heirs who are entitled to inherit under Sharia, the heirs will own the property jointly in accordance with the percentages established under Sharia," Al Saeed explains.

In cases where the deceased has minor kids in the UAE, there are issues over guardianship. Of course, from the practical viewpoint, there will be other family members who will immediately take charge. But a will specifying guardianship provisions "can provide certainty of care and avoid any risk that the local authorities will intervene", says Parker.

In the worst case scenario - that minor children are left without family or friends and the parents did not leave a will - local authorities will be obliged to safeguard them.

"[But] the UAE does not have the extensive social services support structures we have in the West and there would be considerable reluctance to intervene. By contrast, in the UK there will be a formal court order bringing the children under the protection of the courts.

"But in the end, children must be protected here also and if there is uncertainty over guardianship, then intervention may occur. Of course, the most likely outcome is that the relevant country's embassy will be contacted and responsibility for the children transferred there," Parker adds.

There's no need to worry about inheritance taxes in the UAE: They don't exist. However, your possessions can still be subject to the estate or death taxes of your home country.

"It should be noted that if you are a British citizen, it is no easy matter to lose British domicile, and inheritance tax in the UK can be punitive. Your financial adviser will be able to suggest a number of measures to mitigate inheritance tax," says Parker.

According to Yvonne Tsui, principal director of Expat Wills, "The majority of countries will only tax a certain portion of the deceased's overall estate and the tax free element is often known as the nil rate inheritance tax band.

"It is important to ensure your will is drafted in a tax efficient manner by an expert. To reduce inheritance tax liabilities, expatriates may give charitable donations on death or place part of their entire estate into trust while they are still alive, thus reducing the overall value of their estate," Tsui adds.

Al Saeed also notes that there will be transfer fees in the UAE on any real property that is re-registered from the deceased to his heirs.