Futureproofing your loved ones: Where there's a 'will', there's a way

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Alamy Stock photo

Estate and succession planning has suddenly acquired a new lease of life, thanks to Covid.

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By Anjaly Thomas

Published: Sat 26 Jun 2021, 10:32 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:14 PM

In law school, my lecturer had once driven in the importance of making a will. “You are never too young to make one,” he said in all seriousness. “It would be wonderful to live long, but there is always a chance you won’t. If you are above 21 or own anything at all, at any age, you should have a will in place. Spoken promises will not lead to desired results. You have a legal right to distribute your property if you have a will. And do not wait until you are 60.”

I’d hardly given it much thought — till Covid hit… well, I hardly thought I’d witness a pandemic as grave as this one. So, when I caught a cold and sniffled my way through a miserable week six months into the pandemic, I made the decision: to make my will. Who would have guessed that making a will would outweigh the need to survive this pandemic?

Now, I feel as though I found a place to lay down the burden I’d been carrying. I smile at the sheet of paper containing details of everything I possess and my legatees who will stand to gain — and I sigh in relief. For one day, I will be gone and I owe to my next of kin to leave behind a tidy situation. This pandemic has, in a twisted way, opened our eyes to a reality we cannot ignore. Rather, should not ignore. Even with my legal background, I, like many others, mistakenly believed they didn’t have enough in assets to warrant a will, or that my money and possessions would automatically go to my next of kin (in my case, my niece and nephews). Both assumptions were wrong. So, it is crucial to plan the future of your loved ones in a way that protects them as it is to ensure it is you who decides how your assets will be distributed.

Futureproofing in pandemic times

UAE-based British expat Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, CEO of a marketing and PR agency, made her will in the UAE as soon as she bought property here. According to her, if one has any assets or family/kids, it is imperative to make sure they’re protected. “Making a will is an important part of this,” she affirms. “While it might not be the cheapest or the easiest process, you can futureproof it too so you save money: for example, I didn’t have kids when I did mine, but I added in guardianship and temporary custody provisions and contact details on the basis I may have children and thereby prevent future revisions and further changes.”

During this process, she was advised to list five or six people she could trust with her children here until her family in the UK could reach them. “With the UAE being a such transitory place and because I intend being here for a while, I added in a longer list of people in case some leave to ensure there were always options. Ultimately, no one wants to think about what happens in the worst of circumstances, but it’s so important to protect yourself and your assets,” she explains. “I’m glad I did it — and now, I have some peace of mind as a result.”

For a young couple with two children, the pandemic sounded a wakeup call, so Dubai-based Chetna Pandita, a communications specialist and her husband wasted no time in making their will. Chetna says Covid brought uncertainty into everyone’s life, leaving little or no room for procrastination. “NOW is everything. We have lost many of our loved ones and in several cases know of people who died without the chance to put their finances in order, leaving the family in a lurch. It’s your responsibility to keep people you love safe even after you are gone and that is the reality we must accept. I suppose this is one good reason to consider while drawing out your will: it allows you to distribute your estate and safeguard your children according to your wishes.”

Chetna is satisfied with her decision because it gives her the assurance of safety for her family — in the eventuality of the worst-case scenario. Her advice? “It is critical for people with dependents — especially expats and more if you have little children. A sudden death puts a freeze on accounts and assets, and everything, including the custody of your child, is left to the law of the land. Dying intestate increases the time taken for probate (a court-supervised procedure to determine the distribution of assets to beneficiaries) which will burden the family further.”

A very legal requirement

Uncertain times require proper estate planning, says Simon Peter D Isgar, partner, BSA LLP. He says this pandemic has sparked a rise in the number of individuals (in the UAE) considering registering wills, many as young as 40, which was never the case before. “This data is also true in other parts of the world, where many young people, who would not have thought of taking out a will but for the uncertainty of the present times, are doing just that.” Covid has triggered the importance and awareness (especially) among the expatriate community to protect their families and assets in these uncertain times. “Historically, wills have been associated with high-net worth individuals, older people and the terminally ill. Many expats in the UAE who fall in the younger age group have not considered drafting wills, but since many of them have young children, it is vital they do. Wills provide a great comfort blanket, while focusing the mind on asset and family protection, which is much needed in today’s precarious world.”

Awareness is key

“In my personal experience, enquiries on will drafting and succession planning has increased by nearly 20 to 25 per cent since the onset of the pandemic,” explains Bini Saroj, senior legal consultant, Khalifa Bin Huwaidan Alketbi, Dubai. “More and more residents understand the legal complexities in case of death and are keen to secure the future of their family and protect the interests of their heirs in these uncertain times.”

Considering that the UAE’s population largely comprises of expats with property, businesses, bank accounts or minor kids, having a will is essential, explains Bini. “Delays in obtaining legal heir/inheritance certificates can be avoided. In the absence of one, the law of the land will apply, which might not be what the deceased wanted or intended.”

As she touches upon the subject of awareness, she points out that while there is an increase in the number of will registrations due to the pandemic, more understanding in this area is required. “There are many who do not recognise the importance of wills, assuming their assets will automatically go to their family. This must change.”

A well-executed estate plan is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give your loved ones, says Beenish Haider, managing partner of Lex Consortia Legal Consultants, UAE. “Interestingly, there is a broadening of age groups looking to explore succession planning — from newly-married couples to families with minor kids and single people.”

On a positive note, this phase has increased awareness among people regarding the need for one. “I’d encourage everyone to consider getting a suitable succession plan done — whether it is through Dubai Notary, Abu Dhabi Judicial Department (ADJD) or DIFC. In certain circumstances, we have also seen clients drafting their own wills. Be what that may, what matters is the making of one.”

Topping the priority list

As the only child of elderly parents in Russia, Dubai-based airline professional Anastasia Luchnikova finds herself at a crossroads. Prior to the pandemic, making a will was far from her mind, but now she is determined to make the best of the given situation. “Will-writing was one of those things on my to-do lists that until now I never got around to doing,” she says. “But in the current coronavirus situation, I have finally gotten around to sorting this out.”

Single and with no siblings, Anastasia feels it is her duty to ensure her parents’ financial security. “There is no guarantee I will outlive my parents… The pandemic is not selective. And I do not have any sibling that I can push the responsibility to,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Maldives-based marine biologist Selvam Ravindranath has set the process going. Considering that he hasn’t been able to meet his family in India in the last 18 months, and constantly labouring under the fear that he may become a victim of the virus, he has drafted his will. “I just realised that being away from home and family with no guarantee of a long life, it is all the more important that I ensure they are provided for. I wish I had done it sooner, but, of course, it is still not too late.”

He has convinced his expat friends and colleagues to consider making theirs as well. “The uncertainty of life has prompted me to take this decision. Making a will is the best way to ensure clarity and avoid disputes in the future.”

Selvam says that while people in his age group are still divided on the subject, he is certain it is a positive thing to do. “Right now, securing the future of my loved ones is priority.”

Dr Sudhakar Subramaniam, an anaesthesiologist based out of Canada and India, weighs in on the importance of a will — especially for frontline workers, given the current scenario. Until the pandemic hit, he says, he had never considered making a will. Being witness to several deaths of colleagues and friends, many who had never considered making a will, and the subsequent chaos and legal hassles their families faced, spurred him into taking the big decision. “Covid is a testament to the fact that our lives are more vulnerable than imagined. In normal times, opinions were divided about making a will at a young age — with friends and family taking a narrow view on the subject, but that is changing for the better. Now health professionals are in a hurry to put their affairs in order. Covid or not, a will is a reflection of one’s responsibility.”

Not limiting this urgency to frontline staff alone, he says everyone, irrespective of age, gender and profession, must prioritise this. “Everything else can wait.”

Effective estate planning

As Simon Peter explains, this is the right time to educate expats of the importance of making a will and putting in place effective estate planning, where those provisions can be enforced within the current UAE legal framework.

“Current awareness of wills and estate planning in the UAE is, for all intents and purposes, limited. This may be due to lack of awareness around the enforceability issues of foreign wills in the UAE and the transient nature of expats — when considering their retirement and settlement outside the UAE. However, given the pandemic, more awareness of wills and risks of not having effective estate planning in place is now more prevalent than ever.”

The inevitability of death, the security of one’s family or an anticipated legal trouble over inheritance had never got an average individual worried enough to start thinking about writing a will till in their late 50s. But Covid has changed that. Statistics reveal that, before Covid, only 40 per cent of UK adults had made a will, but those numbers have seen a huge jump with people scrambling to make a new will or amend an existing one.

In the UAE, too, the surge in the number has been exponential — an obvious indicator that a global disruption has spurred people into action. The pandemic era has seen an unprecedented spike in the number of registrations, will drafting and queries — a positive sign of a society becoming aware of its responsibilities. “I should probably get a will done… just in case,” is the new rallying call.

Making a will doesn’t mean that you are contemplating death — it only means you have played your part well. It means you have ensured a safer future for your family. It is somewhat like this Facebook meme that caught my fancy: “While the world battles with uncertainty, Indians are making pickles for the next year — if you survive, you can still have some… if not, your children will.”

I do not fear death, but in making my will, I am content. If I survive this pandemic, there is that off-chance I could go on an Antarctic cruise. If I don’t, my will specifies that my legatee must undertake this expedition in my memory when she turns 21.

After all, my niece carries my DNA.

I’ll win this game yet.

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer based in Dubai. She tweets @ThomasAnjaly and her Insta handle is @travelwithanjaly)

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