Whilst just about everyone is aware that sharia law is the legal framework used in the GCC countries, not all expats have realized that this can affect them and their money.

  • Did you know that, upon your death, your account and assets can be frozen?
  • Did you realize that your spouse may not get access for many months?

Should anyone die whilst resident in the UAE, sharia law will be applied to any assets that are held in the UAE – but a complication is that men and women are treated differently. If a wife dies, all of her assets will revert to her husband – but if the husband dies it is an entirely different story.

Any bank accounts in his name would be frozen, even those in joint names. In addition to bank accounts being frozen in the event of a husband’s death, if any vehicles are in his name, they are likely to be impounded until the courts make a ruling regarding assets.

In due course assets would be distributed by the courts in accordance with sharia law and this could take weeks, or even months, although there is no fixed timescale. I have even heard of cases where accounts have been frozen for over a year before being reopened.

As dependents’ visas could be canceled after 30 days, the intended beneficiaries many not even be in the country to deal with these matters.

Traditional rulings dictate that the bulk of assets could be passed to the closest male relative. Whilst a husband will receive a wife’s assets, a wife cannot necessarily expect to receive all of her husband’s assets. That said, a properly written will is usually respected by the courts, but local accounts can remain frozen until probate is granted and all of the deceased’s debt, even ones as small as traffic fines, are repaid.

For the reasons mentioned above, it is important that all married women have access to monies if joint accounts are frozen.

A wife should maintain her own account in the UAE, or have immediate access to monies offshore or in another country so she is not left without funds. If children need to be provided for the situation can be even more acute.

Historically it was accepted that other family members would provide for the widow and any children, but in today’s world that is not always the case, especially if one is an expat living thousands of miles away from any other family.

A married woman without a salary can still have her own bank account, and several banks have accounts set up specifically for women with low opening balance requirements and minimal charges.

Any assets held outside of the GCC countries are not affected, unless of course they are held in another country that applies sharia law. They could however, be subject to other rules or restrictions regarding access following death, although in most cases a joint account holder will have full access.

Forward planning is essential to ensure that widows are not left financially, as well as emotionally, bereft in the event of the husband’s death.

Keren Bobker is an Independent Financial Adviser at Holborn Assets and writes at financialuae.me