On Tuesday 31st October, the UAE government introduced a new law (Law No. 15 of 2017) which officially recognises that non-Muslims with assets in Dubai can register a Will in English under ‘internationally recognised common law’.
Without a Will, on death, assets in Dubai pass under Sharia law. A surviving wife who has children receives one eighth of her deceased husband’s estate. A surviving husband who has children qualifies for one quarter of his deceased wife’s estate. The remainder of the estate is distributed among other family members. In the past, expats have found that the deceased's assets are automatically frozen (cars/joint bank accounts / businesses and property) and that the unravelling of the deceased's estate can take months, usually years.
The creation of the Dubai International Finance Centre Wills and Probate Registry (DIFC WPR) in May 2015 has enabled non-Muslims to register an English Will in Dubai to govern the succession of Dubai assets free of the constraints of Sharia law. Relatively few Wills have been exposed to the Dubai Courts and it is not yet entirely clear whether such Wills are being upheld on death by the local courts or whether the grants of administration produced by the DIFC Courts would be recognised by the banks and central land registry.
There are currently three ways non-Muslims can make a Will to deal with assets in Dubai:
- Draw up a Will in Arabic and get it notarised in the Dubai Courts. The Civil Code allows for the application of the law of the expatriate's country of domicile but there is no guarantee that the Dubai Courts won’t apply Sharia principles on death, at least in the first instance.
- Expats can make a Will in their home country, have it translated into Arabic then attested first by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then by the Ministry of Justice in the UAE and finally in Dubai by the expat's national embassy (be aware that not all embassies will do this). The same uncertainties apply to this as the option above.
- Register an English Will (prepared by a DIFC recognised Will draftsman) with the DIFC WPR.
What the new law means
The new law gives recognition to DIFC Wills. It also suggests a plan to create a Wills Registry within the Dubai Courts akin to the existing DIFC WPR. In due course, it seems the Dubai Courts will directly recognise the testamentary freedom of non-Muslims. The finer details of the formal requirements of such Wills are as yet unknown.
Some might be put off by the cost involved in registering a Will with the DIFC (currently AED 15,000 for the registration of mirror Wills) however as things stand they appear to offer the greatest certainty.
For the time being at least, a DIFC compliant Will works best and Jim Sawer, a partner in the Kingsley Napley Private Client team, is one of only two UK based lawyers recognised by the DIFC WPR to make them.