It is one of the saddest tales told. But just like there is light at the end of the tunnel, this one too has a bright ending. Now all that is left is the closure to a 15-year ordeal so everyone can live happily ever after.
This is the tale of two families, a tragedy, and one mission.
The first concerns former Dubai resident Arvind Ram Seetharaman, 22, the lone survivor of a family that perished in the 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka. The second centers on Arvind's uncle Srinivasan Venkatraman’s quest to hand over his brother's estates in Dubai to his legal heir, Arvind.
How it all began
Seetharaman Venkatraman worked as an internal auditor for a firm in Dubai, and was managing the Middle East and Africa region. He was on a business trip to Sri Lanka in December 2004. It was holiday season at the time in the emirates and schools were closed. His family decided to join him in Sri Lanka for a mini-holiday.
“On December 26 morning, Seetharaman, his wife Prema, sons – Ashwin (13) and Arvind (7) - were in a hotel in Yala. Arvind told me that his mother woke up everyone early as she heard a lot of commotion outside the hotel room. She asked everyone to hold hands and stand together. That was the last time he saw his parents and brother. He recalled there was no warning whatsoever. A massive wave broke the glass window and the next thing Arvind knew was that he was washed into a forest somewhere,” said Srinivasan in a telephone interview from Massachusetts, US, where he now resides.
“Arvind said that when he gained consciousness, he heard another child, a little older than him - perhaps in his teens - scream at him, warning him of another wave. The boy yelled out to Arvind, asking him to climb onto the tree near him. And that is how he was saved. The tree saved his life,” he said.
Srinivasan recalled his brother was in Sri Lanka with a senior colleague at the time. The colleague survived and sent out a search party for Seetharaman and his family. “The Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka called and gave me the good news that Arvind was alive. We were hopeful that the rest of the family were safe too. But our happiness was short-lived as after some time we came to know of my brother’s death and that of my older nephew, Ashwin,” he added.
“We were devastated. Also my sister-in-law was still missing and we did not know if she was alive. For days we did not know of her status at all,” said Srinivasan.
Meanwhile, he began to work on the documents Arvind needed for travel. He had lost his documents and passport in the tragedy. “We had to reestablish who he was, get permission from the Indian consulate to get him a temporary passport so he could get out of Sri Lanka. During this time we also cremated my brother and his older son. According to Hindu customs, the ashes have to be thrown in the sea and so we put their ashes in the oceans of Sri Lanka,” said Srinivasan in a heartfelt note.
There was still no news of Prema, and an elder in the family decided to put an end to the mystery. “My uncle, God bless his soul - he just passed away last year - decided to fly down to Sri Lanka and find out her whereabouts. A military person in Sri Lanka helped him find my sister-in-law Prema. He said several bodies had been moved from Yala to a place [called] Tisarama in Sri Lanka. My uncle was asked to go there. Apparently the doctor who buried the bodies took head shots of everyone, which was very helpful. Unfortunately, Prema’s picture was there and that is how we knew she had died. She is buried in Tisarama and the family decided to leave it at that,” said Srinivasan.
Srinivasan said at that time after consulting his wife, the couple decided to adopt Arvind. “I cannot tell you what a support my wife has been in all this. Right in the beginning I had asked my wife if we could adopt Arvind should he be orphaned and she did not battle an eye-lid before saying yes.
But he could not take him to the US immediately - there were permissions to be got. So Arvind was left in the care of his other uncle until such time that he could re-locate. Srinivasan explained: “My wife knew the Senator well and she told his story. We were able to make a temporary visa for him and then [help him become] a permanent citizen of [the] US.”
“I also had the task of going to Dubai and cleaning up my brother’s flat. Arvind could not go back there as his visa status was dependent on his father. Of course he was just seven years old and he could not do this on his own. But we had to do what we had to do.”
Before the accident, the Seetharaman family were ready to head to Canada. “They had all the paperwork ready, some of their things were also packed for Canada when we went into the apartment,” recalled Srinivasan.
On May 4, 2005, Arvind landed in the US. He was on a year-long temporary visa. Arvind has since been adopted by Srinivasan and his wife. Now, he also has two siblings: Chantel and Vanessa.
The story is not over yet
While things seemed sorted, there was another worry niggling away at Srinivasan; the ownership of his brother’s estates in Dubai.
“To be honest, I have shielded Arvind from all this. I only told him about his father having an account here in Dubai four years ago. Sometimes when you tell a young kid they have money elsewhere their thought process could change as to how they want to live their lives. I did not want that to happen. Thankfully, Arvind has grown [up] to be a sensible and good child. He is a hotel management graduate and started working last month in Washington DC.”
“In spite of all the tragedy, as a young person we are happy he has grown up to be a good young man. [At the] end of the day that is what we want. There was no negative impact on the circumstances he was put through. He is not afraid of water or the swimming pool. This is what we wanted. Money comes and goes. But at the same time we want to put an end to this long ordeal. Close the accounts here and move it back to the US.
According to Jamal Saleh, Director General of UBF, a legal heir of a dormant account in the UAE can claim monies anytime they wish. There is no stipulated time by which they have to claim their estates. “Once an account has become legally dormant (which is not easy to happen nowadays, especially with CBUAE’s updated rules), its balance will be transferred by the bank to the Central Bank. If a legal heir wishes to claim it, they will have to write to CBUAE. To the best of my knowledge, almost all banks apply the limits/thresholds that are prescribed by CBUAE in core matters. Variations may exist in none core treatments,” said Saleh.
Devanand Mahadeva, director of Goodwins Law Corporation and a specialist in Inheritance & Personal Law said: “A legal heir of a dormant account has to provide an inheritance certificate issued by the personal status court in the UAE, naming the legal heir to the estate left behind by the deceased. Next, the heir has to open a file in the personal status court to get order from the Court to claim the money and transfer it to the legal heirs. It is a process which all estates left behind by the deceased have to go through in the UAE.”
Mohammad Marria of will writing company Just Wills said there are a number of regulations that cover numerous of types of dormant accounts and sets out protocols for dealing with them. “He said there is always a process in place set out by the UAE Central Bank with respect to dormant accounts. A legal heir can claim their monies at any given time as long as they can prove they are the legal heirs.”
What is a dormant account?
In the case of personal savings account, if there has been no transactions for a period of six years; in fixed / short-term deposit accounts with automatic renewable clauses, if there has not been any communication with the customer for more than five years; Fixed/Short Term Deposit Accounts Without Automatic Renewable Clause – if no renewal nor claim request has been made in a period of 12 months.
In the case of Investment Accounts, if there has been no communication from the customer for a period of 12 months from the final maturity date.
The bank must attempt to inform the customer of the dormant deposit account and if no response is received from the customer for a period of two months after such an attempt, the bank must notify the Central Bank.
Unclaimed Bankers’ Cheques, Bank Drafts or Cashier Orders
Unclaimed by the beneficiary or the customer for a period of one year.
The bank must publish a notice in two local newspapers (one in Arabic language and one in English language) giving details of the unclaimed amount if no response is received from the customer for a period of three months after the publication, the balance should be transferred to the unclaimed balances’ account held by the bank.
Unpaid dividends to the bank’s shareholders
Dividends unclaimed for a period of one year from the date of the dividend distribution announcement.
The bank must publish a notice in two local newspapers (one in Arabic and one in English) giving details of the unclaimed amount and if no response is received from the customer for a period of three months after the publication, the balance should be transferred to the unclaimed balances account by the bank.
Unclaimed contents of safe deposit boxes
The bank’s charges for a safe deposit box remains outstanding for a period of more than two years.
The bank must send a final notice to the customer’s last known address and publish a notice in two local newspapers (one in Arabic language and one in English language), if no response is received from the customer for a period of three months after the notice and publication, the bank should apply to the court for an appointment of a person’ to supervise the opening of the box. A detailed list of the contents should be submitted to the Central Bank and if any of the contents are sold by way of a court order, the proceeds of such sale should be transferred to the unclaimed balances’ account. Actual charges (if any) incurred by the bank in the process can be deducted before transferring the proceeds to the unclaimed balances account.
Once an account has been deemed dormant and the bank has carried out its required actions pursuant to the Regulation, the bank may subsequently transfer the amounts held in each account and the unclaimed balances to a dormant account ledger, which is to be maintained by the bank in the form prescribed by the Regulation. The bank is also obliged to send a copy of the dormant account ledger to the Banking Operations Department and the Banking Supervision Department of the Central Bank.
Transfer of Dormant Funds to the Central Bank
If an account remains dormant (and balances remain unclaimed) for a period of seven years from the date of the last transaction and the amount in the account exceeds Dh3,000, banks should use the form prescribed by the Regulation to transfer the funds to the Unclaimed Balances Account that Dormant Accounts at the Central Bank. This is provided the customer has no other active accounts with the bank and the current address of the customer is unknown. No fees or charges may be levied on customers with a dormant account balance less than Dh3,000.
Claims by Customers for Funds in Dormant Accounts
The Regulation provides a customer with the right to make a claim to recover funds held in a dormant account and unclaimed balances by approaching the bank. The Regulations further require the bank to settle recovery claims within one (1) month unless there is a valid reason for delay.
Obligations on the Banks
Banks must ensure that customers’ profiles are updated, as instructed via the Central Bank’s regulations, in respect of anti-money laundering procedures. They must also periodically advise their customers in order to reduce the number of dormant accounts. The Regulation requires that banks carry out an annual review of such accounts and contact the customers through letters, telephone calls, SMS alerts and emails, if as possible. Also, advise them of the dormancy and the need to activate the account.
Banks must develop suitable systems to facilitate closing or activating a dormant account with ease. No fees or charges should be levied for re-activation or closing such accounts.
All dormant accounts and unclaimed balances accounts must be fully reconciled on a monthly basis (at least) and are subject to review by the external auditor annually.
Protection of customers’ rights
The regulation stipulates that money in a dormant account will remain the property of the account holder, or his/her legal heirs, if the account holder has died. Interest will continue to accrue on interest bearing accounts, depending on the terms of the contract between the bank and no incidental charges should be levied on such dormant account. No debits or system based charges must be levied on dormant accounts. However, credits received must be deposited in the accounts. Such credits would not interfere with the dormancy of an account.
Source: Just Wills, Goodwins Law Corporation and Central Bank of UAE