***Writing A Will Does Not Bring You Closer To Death
Oyin Somorin, Lukmon Akintola
“My father was always nice to his family when he was alive. He sent some of them to school; he even picked the bill for the wedding of one of his brothers. They were always coming to him with their problems. Yes, I was still young, but I remember all of these. As soon as he died, they moved in to take over his properties. The moment he was buried, his elder sister moved into his bedroom, while his brother, who was into the same business took over most of his production equipment. They even chased my mom away.”
That is the story of Emeka Chikwendu who together with his siblings and mother lost their inheritance to uncles and extended family members when his father died intestate.
The story is not new but it is a recurring experience in Africa where tradition gives the widow the unkindest cut when her spouse dies without a written will, the legal tool to keep wealth from being hijacked by siblings of the husband. This is despite the growing awareness about wills and testaments to curb such obnoxious practices by the male-dominated African society.
Nobody wants to die leaving the family to the whims and caprices of relatives. The question, however, is how do you plan to safeguard your family from these hijackers?
How do you write a proper and binding will?
For a lot of people, being urged to write a will sends a message that is most often misinterpreted to mean death is beckoning.
This situation has thus seen several families thrown into turmoil because their breadwinner died interstate. Again if there is a will there are often contestations, especially where the language is couched in too much legalese, which are prone to different interpretations.
Indeed, the importance of a will cannot be overemphasised as many believe that as far as the skirmish of the extended family and in-laws are concerned, where there is a will, there is a way.
However, there are a lot of people who hold the opinion that a will is only written by the rich. As such, you hear a lot of people asking what do I want to do with a will, what are my possessions?
Abisola Onigbogi, Director of Business Development at ARM Pension emphasised the importance of writing a will when he said that it is necessary to avoid crises among the family after the contributor dies.
In his words, “If you die without a will, your beneficiary will have a difficult time accessing the benefit. If there is no will in place we have little control,” he stated at a forum organised by his company.
Today, most insurance companies have made will writing easier via online platforms, as they advise policy takers to write their will for future purposes.
On the state of widows in Nigeria, Kendi Aig -Imoru, the brain behind Hope For Life Initiative, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which focuses on the interest of less privileged children and widows said crises that befall widows at the exit of their husbands become complicated without a written document called a will.
“I have been working with widows over the years. Unfortunately, their husbands not having a will is what landed a lot of them where they found themselves. Discussion about wills is something that most people don’t want to talk about in our society. They assume that it is always death related.
“The truth of the matter is that some people believe that they would live forever. However, the fact is that when you start making money and having properties, it is better to start writing a will. Some people abroad even plan on what should happen to them in the near future, but in Nigeria, things like a will are very difficult to talk about. I have not met a widow who has said her husband has left a will. It is always I have to take care of my children because my in-laws threw us out, they don’t want to leave anything for us.”
Sharing her experiences from working with widows, Aig-Imoru said, “In Nigeria, the narrative has to change. Men have to start understanding that the family must have a will. There was a prominent case last year; it was all over the news. A woman’s husband died and his relatives maintained that he should not be buried until his properties had been sorted out. However, the wife’s saving grace was that she had a grown child who stood his ground and with the help of their church members they were able to ensure that everything was done her way.”
Advising young couples, she said once they start having properties, they should begin to write their will because nobody knows what the future holds.
Though widows are mostly the one at the receiving end, there are a few widowers who have had to bear the brunt of a wife dying without a will.
In 2018, Isah Sulaiman sued his mother-in-law at a Magajin Gari Sharia Court in Kaduna, over his late wife’s inheritance.
Sulaiman told the court that his mother-in-law, Khadija Ibrahim, had allegedly confiscated his late wife’s inheritance meant for his children, asking the court to compel the respondent to hand over the documents of his late wife, Aisha’s, house to her three surviving children.
While cases like this might be scarce, several tales of widows suffering in the hands of in-laws and people who once feigned love to them abound.
The experience of 38-year-old Mrs. Edna Ogundele who now resides in Lafenwa, Ogun State is an eye-opener.
Once a beautiful and very comfortable woman, the unfortunate circumstances that surrounded the death of her husband and led to her absconding from his family has left her in near penury. Today, the once elegant woman struggles to fend for her children leaving her a shadow of who she used to be. Once, during an altercation, she was heard telling a neighbour that it was life’s experience that has seen her living in Lafenwa, as she is not supposed to reside in a place like that.
Ogundele’s case is indeed a pitiable one, as she is yet to get herself since her deceased husband’s family accused her of having a hand in his death.
To prove her innocence, she had to go the nine yards with all of her husband’s customs and tradition. On several occasions, she was told to stay by his tomb and pray for hours. She was also told to cook and leave the food outside. According to the family, if the food disappears; it means she had no hand in his death, but if it doesn’t, she has a lot of explanations to offer.
“After my husband’s burial, my in-laws tried to collect all his entitlements from the company where he worked before his death. They went as far as publishing a notice of his death and tried to collect his money from the bank, unfortunately, the financial institution denied them since they were not his next of kin.”
Emphasising how desperate her in-laws were she revealed that she was later told to go to the bank to withdraw money so they could pay some bills.
“Imagine, I was told by my husband’s family to go and get money from his bank account to pay for expenses incurred during his burial, I saw a lot. When we went to bury him, I had to do all sorts of things in the name of tradition,” she noted.
She further revealed that when the problem became too much, she had to run away.
Mrs. Ngozi Achike’s (not real name) experience brings tears to the eyes. While sharing her ordeal with our reporter, she said “I will never forget the day he died. I went to the market and I forgot my phone at home. When I got back home, I saw 13 missed calls from a strange number. I returned the call and was told to come to Alapere Police Station in Lagos State only to later find out that I was actually there to identify my husband’s corpse.”
Telling a very sad tale, the woman revealed how devastated she was when after barely taking her late husband’s corpse to the mortuary his family shamelessly started asking about his properties, forgetting that he had not even been buried yet.
Narrating how she handled the absurdity, she said “I got angry. Though I knew this was going to happen, I stood my ground and told them I wasn’t going to say anything until after his burial. The night after his burial in Mbaise, Imo State, I was summoned to a family meeting where I was asked what I knew about my husband’s death. I was surprised because they knew he was involved in an accident. I was also so angry that throughout the interrogation I didn’t say a word. I spent three days in the village after the burial and went back to Lagos where my children and I are based. I had barely rested from my trip when I got a phone call from the eldest son in my husband’s family that I should make provisions of the documents of his properties.”
To secure her children’s future, Mrs. Achike revealed that she had to keep the documents in the bank, adding that she told her in-laws when they eventually came that she didn’t have them.
Detailing the consequences of her actions, she revealed that they got annoyed and almost beat her up, as they asked her to leave the house because she was proving stubborn.
Several efforts to sell what was once her home failed, the woman who now resides with her children in a rented apartment, while her husband’s house still remains empty said.
Not giving up, Mrs. Achike hopes that her children will someday fight for their father’s properties when they are old enough.
Cases like that of Mrs. Ogundele and Mrs. Achike paint a clear picture of what an average family without a will goes through in the hand of in-laws when the breadwinner dies interstate.
Asides from the suffering which families and wives are thrown into as a result of lack of will, supposedly conflicting information in some wills have also seen a lot of rich children heading to court to contest what was written by their parents.
This picture is indeed a regular one in Africa, as some of the biggest and richest families are known to still have cases in court relating to disputed wills.
The tale of how children of the late businessman turned politician, Moshood Abiola were at loggerhead for several years over their father’s will remains legendary. The same applies to the Ibru family, who are currently in court over their late father’s multi-billion-naira estate.
Interestingly, there are cases where widows have been saved from their in-laws because their husbands wrote a will.
When Mrs. Florence Ajayi lost her husband to the cold arms of death, she thought that she would find solace in her in-laws. However, she never imagined in her wildest imagination that her life and that of her children was going to be hell on earth.
Unknown to her, her in-laws had conspired against her. Signs that trouble was coming her way came in flashes, as barely days after her husband’s death; her in-laws visited and started asking for documents of all of the important things he owned.
The cars, the houses, and even checkbooks, they wanted it all. According to them, it was just to keep a record of what he owned.
What was supposed to be a simple inventory session soon turned into a nightmare; she subsequently turned a suspect in the death of her husband, before she was sent packing.
For her, her saving grace was the fact that she dragged her in-laws to court and won the case, thus legally stopping them from taking over what her late husband had willed to her and her children.
The precarious situation that dying without a will causes cannot be overemphasised, as tradition appears to be another clog in what should be a natural transition.
In areas such as Delta, Edo and Bayelsa State among others, they are known to ignore the content of wills and take their own family decision. It is a known fact in the Igbo culture that the first son gets the house in which their father resided in before he died. So, if the house is willed to another person other than him, that decision is set aside and the house handed over to the first son. Whatever is decided by the family is binding on everyone.
Barrister Sani Muritala of Bondbriefs Solicitors emphasised the importance of writing a will when he said: “a will is something that is written to secure the future of one’s family. However, some people don’t see it that way as they think you are wishing them bad luck or death.”
Bearing his thoughts, he said “we always advice couples to start writing their will if they have any property, but not everyone takes to the advice. A will is very important mostly for the immediate family; I am talking about the wife and children.”
Asked why families often head to court because of wills, Bar. Muritala said, “There are several reasons why families go to court. Some of the reasons are because some wills can be tampered with, we are all human.”
On what makes a will a legal document, he said, “There are rules and regulations that have to be met before the court can tag a will a legal document. The person writing the will has to get a lawyer, he also has to have a witness who is not a beneficiary, there should be an executor. The executor can be the spouse of the person or a trusted friend in case things get complicated.
Lastly, there should be a letter of instruction, which can be done privately. Some do it in the form of a letter, while some shoot videos. In the letter of instruction, one can specify what he or she wants, like giving instructions to the executor in terms of account numbers, passwords and even burial instructions.”
Though a widow or widower can approach the probate court for a letter of administration when their spouse dies without a will, there are those who hope that someday spouses will be enlightened enough to know that the court is an avenue for succour.