UAE NRIs urged to learn the power of their will

Kapil Jain does not like to dwell too much on the subject of death. The 40-year-old has lived and worked in Dubai for the past 15 years and hopes he has a long life ahead of him.

But, should the worst happen, he admits his rational side has prompted him to look into drawing up wills in India and the UAE to ensure his assets are distributed the way he wants.

With a wife and son to support and after “foolishly” procrastinating, he has come to realise that writing a will is the sensible thing to do.

“Uncertainties do not knock when they come,” says the digital marketing technologist, who is originally from Lucknow in north India.

However, Mr Jain is in the minority. Cultural factors often come into play for Indian expatriates in the UAE, as many avoid the issue of a will altogether.

“Many think it as a bad omen and therefore do not want to discuss the subject of death. We have not come across many non-resident Indians who are creating wills for their assets in India,” says Raghvendra Nath at Ladderup Wealth Management in Mumbai.

But with many professional NRIs holding wealth both in the UAE and in their home nation, the issue has become more pressing. “Estate planning in India is a difficult subject and very few Indians go for it,” says Mr Nath. “I think the reason is plain ignorance about the complications that may arise in the event of their death.”

Mr Nath urges Indian expatriates to plan for the worst, adding that they risk having the distribution of their assets decided in a manner they may not want.

“Normally, NRIs will have properties and assets in India as well as their country of residence,” says Mr Nath. “Without a will, in most countries, the laws of succession of the country of residence would apply to NRIs. For NRIs living in UAE, the need for writing a will is even more acute. In the absence of a will, the courts would follow the Sharia laws to decide on the succession plan.”

Ideally, an NRI living in UAE should create a will for assets in UAE and a separate document for assets in India, Mr Nath says.

He explains that Indian expatriates who do not have a will in place can end up leaving a lot of complicated bureaucratic processes for their loved ones to grapple with.

And the need for clear instructions as to final wishes does not only apply to assets in the UAE, but assets in India as well.

“The Indian succession laws would apply to a person for his assets that are located in India. Besides this, there could be a lot of paperwork that can be avoided if you have a will in place,” says Mr Nath, adding that after a man’s death, his wife and children would have equal claim to his wealth in India.

However, under Sharia in the UAE, a wife may not receive a fair share of the deceased’s wealth because the law favours the male members of the family.

Family members could also be left with significant financial costs. These include legal fees, which can quickly escalate.

Mohammad Marria, a senior estate planner at Just Wills in Dubai, says the process is inevitably time-consuming, can result in arguments among the family and could still end with one’s estate being distributed unfavourably.

Mr Marria says NRIs must also never assume they can rely on a will drafted in India, because each country has it own laws.

“Draft a will and have this attested and notarised locally in the UAE so that it is recognised,” he says.

Legal fees are also very high for those without a will in place, warns Mr Nath.

“The family may have to incur significant costs to gain control over assets. An NRI has to deal with the jurisdiction of two countries. Rather than leaving his family in the lurch, it is better to clarify matters when one is healthy and alive,” he adds.

Bhupender Nath, 43, the chief executive and co-founder of Tresind, an Indian fine dining restaurant in Dubai, has lived in the UAE with his family for the past eight years.

Mr Nath, who has two teenage sons, decided to draw up a will in Dubai in 2010 but not in India, because he is concerned that it might be difficult to prove multiple wills.

“In my case, my lawyers drafted it on my behalf and then got it attested by notary public, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Indian embassy,” says Mr Nath, originally from Gurgaon in Haryana in north India. “What made me realise and prompted this was the fact I travel a lot for work, so I decided to write a will to be careful.”

One thing Mr Jain says he is concerned about is the cost of writing a will in the UAE, as it is significantly more expensive here than in India. Prices start from Dh3,000 per person, according to Mr Marria, while the Arabic translation can cost about Dh1,500 per person and the notary fee is Dh2,110 per person.

Even with a will in place in the Emirates, there has still been some ambiguity over the processes and decisions made regarding how assets are distributed after someone’s death. A new registry is expected to be a solution to these uncertainties.

In what is the first of its kind in the region, the introduction of a new Dubai International Financial Centre Wills and Probate Registry last month allows non-Muslim expatriates to register a will under common law principles.

The registry’s main benefit for non-Muslim expats is ensuring their assets are passed on according to their wishes without the risk of being subject to conflicting inheritance laws. “The cost at the moment is about Dh10,500 to register your will,” Mr Marria says.

“A very important point to be noted is that the DIFC Wills only covers assets in Dubai so if you have assets outside Dubai then you will not be covered.”

Mr Jain says he is definitely considering the DIFC wills registry for the sake of certainty.

Once a will has been drawn up, there are various ways of securely storing it, including with a lawyer or a will-writing service. But one must make sure to inform the executor, a person nominated to carry out the deceased’s wishes, of where to find it.

Mr Marria says expatriates living in the UAE should also keep separate bank accounts for the husband and wife. Shortly after someone dies in the UAE, all their bank accounts are frozen – even if it is a joint account and regardless of whether a will is in place or not.

One Indian expatriate in Dubai, who wished to remain anonymous, describes how after the sudden death of her father who did not have a will, family members advised her to immediately take her father’s cards to an ATM and withdraw as much cash as she could before the accounts were frozen.

The process of securing his assets took several months and involved his brothers in India having to state they did not want to lay claim to the deceased’s wealth. To ease the process for loved ones, Mr Marria also advises keeping a list of assets and sharing this information with the family. “Plus, have enough life insurance to cover all your debts and liabilities,” he adds.

Options in India for NRIs

Writing a will in India for an NRI is relatively straightforward and, unlike in the UAE, the costs involved are low. There is no set format and it can just be on a simple piece of paper. This has to be signed and notarised by two witnesses – something that can even be done while the NRI is still abroad.

Lawyers fees for drafting a will in India start from about 20,000 rupees (Dh1,150). It is not essential to use a lawyer and anyone can write their own will, which is valid as long as it is signed by the individual and attested by two witnesses. Using a lawyer is advisable, however, particularly in more complicated cases and to help avoid disputes that might arise later over potential ambiguities in the wording.

A cheaper option is to use an online service. One such service, EzeeWill, a joint venture between NSDL and Mumbai-based Warmond Trustees and Executors, was launched last year. It charges 4,000 rupees to create a will online. Home delivery of a physical copy of the will to select cities costs an additional 500 rupees. HDFC bank has also launched an online will writing service. It is not mandatory to register a will in India but it is highly recommended, with registration fees negligible at just 200 to 300 rupees.


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