As a Muslim country, the United Arab Emirates have their legal system based on the Sharia Law. The matters of inheritance and procedures following a person’s death are no exception.
Inheritance under the Sharia Law
The rules that govern inheritance have their origin in the Quran, but practical implementation is derived from its various interpretations rather than the Quran itself. As a result, there are many differences in small details across the Muslim world, although several key principles apply universally.
Men vs. Woman as beneficiaries
Unlike secular legal systems, Islamic law treats male and female beneficiaries differently. For example, the Quran states that the son’s share should be double the daughter’s share. There are many other rules, also involving other relatives, which make it much more complex in practice, but generally men get more than women. If you are not Muslim, you may find this unfair, but it starts to make some sense when viewed in the context of Islamic law as a whole, where a major responsibility of men is to provide for their women and their families.
The important of being Muslim
Another key principle is that non-Muslims are treated less favourably – very often they get nothing. In case of marriages (in order to determine relations of particular individuals to the deceased person), only those are considered where both husband and wife are Muslims.
Wills under the Sharia Law
Having a will is very important for Muslims and the Quran explicitly encourages them to make it. An Islamic will can have written or oral form, but in practice written form is recommended for obvious reasons. There must be two witnesses for a will to be valid.
The part of your estate that you can bequest through a will is limited to one third. You are free to pass your assets to any person (including non-Muslims) who would normally not be eligible, to a charity, or state the beneficiaries generally, for example the poor or orphans. In any case however, the remaining two thirds should go to the legal heirs (family).
How UAE expats can avoid the Sharia Law
If you are an expat in the UAE, having a will is absolutely essential, particularly if you don’t want the above mentioned Islamic rules to automatically apply to your estate.
Being an expat always complicates things, because you need to comply with the laws and regulations in both your home country and the country of residence. In the UAE, a law passed in 2005 (Federal Law 28 of 2005 on Personal Affairs) allows expats to choose their home country’s law to regulate their inheritance, including their assets in the UAE (with some potential complications in case of UAE real estate). There are several requirements for this to be possible:
- You must not be Muslim (otherwise Sharia Law applies to inheritance).
- You must have valid UAE residence visa.
- Your will must be approved by particular institutions, such as the embassy of your home country and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the UAE. It must also be translated to Arabic.
- The two witnesses are still required as per the Sharia Law. They must be Muslims even when you are not.
This process may be overwhelming and time consuming. Because any errors and omissions can have serious consequences, it is recommended to get help of a lawyer or advisor who is both familiar with the local laws and experienced with dealing with expats.