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Writing a will in the UAE: What if You don't Have a Will?

Updated: Apr 25

At the end of October, a very dear family member died suddenly. It was shocking and I knew immediately that I had to travel to be with my family in Canada. Going was an easy decision that I made with great clarity; I flew out later that day. Everything that came after that was more complicated. Grief is complex and surprising.


Confronting death makes you think about life differently: Life is fragile, precious, and not guaranteed.


Thankfully, my elderly family member had been working through her finances with her adult daughter, and had all her important documents, including a copy of her will, in an easily accessible folder. While executing a will is a complex process that takes months, the start of the process was much more straightforward with these documents in hand.


Grieving the loss of a loved one is hard. As parents, anything we can do to now to make it easier on our surviving family is worthwhile, particularly while we have a young daughter.


Before we had a child, we didn't need to think much about what would happen after we died. No one was depending on our income and assets. Now that we're parents, planning for our daughter's wellbeing in case of our death is our burden. It is very hard to think about. In fact, my husband and I have been putting it off for the past 5 years. We don't have a will.


Why no will?


Despite knowing that we should have one, the process is daunting and expensive. It's not only hard to think about these things, it's also very costly to hire a lawyer to assist in the process, and until 2017, was prohibitively expensive in the UAE. Since we don't own any property in the UAE, have separate bank accounts here, and our investments are in the US, we never felt the need to have a will before our child was born.


After witnessing the aftershock of the death of a parent firsthand, I now see writing a will as a kindness we can do for our daughter. We can make some of the difficult decisions now, so she won't have to face everything on her own later.


Our child is now 5, our will is overdue by 5 years already! Come along with me on my personal journey as I sort out exactly how to write and register a will in the UAE through the Abu Dhabi Civil Family Court.


Today I will be discussing the hardest part, deciding what will be in the will, and I will give you action points of things you can do right now that will help even if you aren't yet ready to file a will in the courts.


Screenshot of the Will Template Abu Dhabi Courts
UAE Last Will and Testament Template from Abu Dhabi Family Courts

What does a will include?


If you have minor children, then guardianship is the most important part of your will. The most obvious reason to have a will is to give you control over inheritance of your assets. Another important part of a will is deciding on who will be your executor, the person who will handle your accounts, clear out your apartment, and ensure your will is "executed," meaning that your written wishes are carried out.



1. Guardianship


This is the most pressing issue for us. Deciding who will take care of our daughter should we both die while she is still young.


When she was a baby this seemed straightforward: Of course she would live with my sister.


Now she's 5, has a social network of her own and very strong opinions and preferences. My ideas about what is in her best interest have evolved. My sister lives in the US, has no children, and only sees my daughter about once a year. They don't know each other very well. This no longer seems like the best decision for my daughter.


Living as an expat makes this ever more complicated as our close friends are transient like us. My two closest friends have left the UAE in the past few years. This is part of what makes writing a will hard. Putting something into writing about the care of our child in a world that is constantly changing. How can we get this right?


In reality, we can't. There is no best solution here. Sometimes we just have to make a choice. In this case, making a choice is far better for our child than not making one. So here I am pondering my own demise and what my child's life will look like.


I'm going to go take a few deep breaths and make a cup of tea.


Temporary and permanent guardianship


The will template provided by the Abu Dhabi courts includes space for naming a permanent guardian and a temporary guardian, along with an alternate for each. The temporary guardian takes custody of your child/ren if the permanent guardian is not present and able to take immediate custody.


Even if you don't have a will in place, the UAE is not in the practice of taking children, if the child is not already under the care of a trusted adult at the time of their parents passing, the police will contact the child's school, and/or the parents' employer to find a female known to the child to place the child with until family can arrive in the UAE.


For our family, we already have close friends here in Abu Dhabi in mind that I know my child would feel comfortable staying with temporarily. It's a relief knowing that we can nominate two temporary guardians knowing that our friends travel, and they might not always be here. These friends are already aware that they're listed as emergency contacts for our child at school.


Our chosen permanent guardian is an auntie who knows our child well, has lived here in UAE before, although she is currently living elsewhere. She is someone I trust and who I know will both have the capacity and willingness to care for my daughter and meet her needs. She has known she is our daughter's godmother and guardian for a long time now, even though we haven't yet registered an official will.


Do this now


If you have one or more children you can do these steps today:


  • Decide who will be their temporary (here in UAE) guardians and who will be their permanent guardians.

  • Discuss this with the guardians, list the local guardians as emergency contacts at your child's school or nursery.

  • List them as emergency contacts with your place of employment. This is useful as in case of death, the police will reach out to your visa sponsor. Even without a will, this ensures that your child/ren will be taken care of by someone they know should something happen to you. It's also helpful to write this in a google doc or email, so there is a written record of your guardianship wishes, even without a will.


If the decision is already made and communicated with your potential guardians, then writing the legal will is that much easier.



2. Inheritance


Without a will, inheritance is determined by the laws in the place where your assets are. If you have assets in the UAE (bank accounts, property, household goods etc) these will be distributed according to the local laws. The UAE's laws on inheritance for expatriates were recently revised to be fairly closely aligned to what I would choose myself.


According to Article 11 (2) of Law No. 14 of 2021, if a non-UAE resident dies without a Will then there is a set method for asset distribution. The surviving spouse shall receive half of the inheritance and the other half shall be distributed equally between the children of the deceased (no difference between males and females). If the deceased has no children, then the remaining inheritance shall be shared equally between the deceased’s parents. If one of the parents is deceased, the remaining parent shall retain their half share and the other half shall be shared equally between the deceased’s siblings. If both of the deceased’s parents have passed away, the remaining inheritance shall be shared equally between the siblings (no difference between males and females).


The advantage to having a will is that the process of transferring your assets will go more quickly (probate can take years!) and you will be able to choose how those assets are distributed. For me, this is straightforward, everything to my husband, and if he's not here, everything to my daughter.


The will template from Abu Dhabi Family Courts includes space for one primary beneficiary, and up to two secondary beneficiaries in case the primary is deceased. This will template applies to UAE assets only. This works for us, so will make writing our will very straightforward. If you need more beneficiaries, you will likely need to hire a lawyer to help draft your will, which will cost more.


If you have assets in other countries you may need to write a will for each of those countries as well, depending on the laws in place there, or an international will. Since my assets are only in the UAE and US, and my US investments have my spouse and child listed as beneficiaries, I don't see the need for a US will. Honestly, as long as my daughter is taken care of, I don't really care what happens to any of my belongings after I'm gone. Other people may feel differently.


Do this now


It is important to note that when a person resident in the UAE dies the first thing that will happen is that financial accounts in the UAE will be frozen, even if they are joint accounts. In the US, UK, Europe, and Canada most joint accounts include "automatic rights of survivorship" which means the the assets in that account go directly to the surviving account holder without going through probate, but that is not the case in the UAE. For this reason, it's advisable for all adults to have a least a month's worth of expenses in cash in an account solely in their own name regardless of whether or not they also have a will in place. This also protects you in case of legal action against one spouse, where assets can sometimes be frozen during the legal proceedings.



3. Executor


The executor is the person who does all the work of handling your life when you're not here. They close bank accounts, cancel utilities, sort out debts, sell property if necessary, and clear out your personal items. The executor will be the decision maker during the settling of your estate, and will hold your assets in trust if your beneficiary is a minor. It is a time consuming and emotionally heavy task that requires a great deal of trust.


It's a good idea to set this person up with all of your necessary information in an easy to access place. This could be a digital document with a list of your financial accounts, utilities, and subscriptions as well as any other personal details that are important to you (ie, give this painting to aunt Miriam).


Your executor can be the same as the beneficiary of your will, so long as they are an adult and able to do the work. No matter what, it should be someone you trust to handle your affairs when you're no longer here.


The will template from AD Family courts give space for up to three executors, with the second and third as alternates in case the first cannot fulfill the responsibility.


It's useful to note that the will template also includes a "letter of wishes" provision. Directing your executor to follow the wishes of any written intentions, no matter how informal, provided they are dated after the will.


So, please communicate, clearly and in writing, your wishes to your executor. It's easy to update these wishes as time goes by without having to re-write your will. Their task will be much easier to handle in the midst of their grief if they know what you had in mind already.


Do this now:


Decide who will be your executor and communicate your wishes to them clearly in writing. In the absence of a will, informal writings can be helpful for your loved ones navigating how to settle your estate. We have an informal "will" as a google document that we've written and shared with our child's potential guardian. Most importantly, my spouse and I have a clear idea of what the other would want should one of us pass. Not having a legal will makes the process of settling an estate much more complicated and time consuming, but having something is better than nothing.


Summary


Writing a will is daunting. The hardest part is the thinking and planning, and you can do that right now. There are certain things you can put into place even before you make a legal will to make things easier should you die in the interim, such as naming guardians for your children, having a bank account in each spouse's name, and communicating your wishes in writing to your beneficiaries/executor, even informally. Once you have made these decisions, using the Abu Dhabi Family courts template should be fairly straightforward.


This is where I am currently in the process. I will update you on how the process goes as I write, translate, and register my will.


Wish me luck.



Sources:








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