Life after death: wills, culture and tradition

Following my Grandfather's death in April, I accompanied my Granny and Auntie to Zambia where I learned how the law and tradition interact after a Zambian dies intestate.

I have been travelling in Zambia for the past week to accompany my Grandmother as she deals with the execution of my Grandfather’s estate. The difficulty however is that my Grandfather died intestate meaning that he didn’t leave a will. My grandparents were also from two different tribes, meaning that the business of executing his estate hasn’t just been governed by law, but also by customary traditions. The experience has been an eye-opening insight into my Zambian culture and has shown me how Wills and Trusts may be more relevant that I previously thought.

Navigating intestate succession

Earlier this year my Grandfather passed away after a short, sudden illness. It was a really difficult time for my Grandmother and my aunts and uncles. What made it even more difficult was the fact that he didn’t leave a will before he died. Because my grandfather died intestate, negotiating how to divide his assets was an extremely complicated affair. This was not only because there was no will document left but also because my grandfather’s Bemba tribe had their own customs which his side of the family sought to enforce following his death.

Will you leave a will?

In the United Kingdom, 54% of adults have no will. This meant that comparatively, my grandfather’s omission was not out of the ordinary. However, seeing the stressful negotiations that took place to appoint an administrator of his estate showed me just how important it is to leave a will before you pass away. It helps those you love mourn you in the knowledge that your wishes have been clearly stated and there is no confusion over what you would have wanted.

Learning about wills in Zambia

In England, the only source of law governing the execution of an estate is statute and the common law. However, in countries like Zambia where traditional customs are strong, families can find themselves navigating multiple forms of law and custom when a loved-one passes on.

Seeing the different customs from my grandfather’s side of the family leave my grandmother waiting for their approval before she could go through the procedure to appoint herself as an administrator of his estate was extremely insightful. It showed me that the law does not exist in a vacuum. Statute does not change the influence of culture and tradition in peoples’ lives and that is as true in Zambia as it is in England.

After an extremely long meeting between both sides of the family, it was finally agreed that my grandmother and aunt could be the administrators of the estate. We then headed to the local courts to get a declaration from a magistrate. Rather than the straightforward procedure, we waited for two senior representatives from both sides of the family to be present, in honour of traditional custom. The magistrate was extremely accommodating and law and tradition thankfully worked alongside each other.

Giving trusts a second chance

Before today, I had largely treated equity, wills and trusts as “boring” subjects that I had to complete on the GDL and would ideally never have to touch again. I knew they were objectively important subject areas (people die all the time) but I hadn’t personally experienced a dispute over the execution of an estate to show me just how essential it is to leave a will. This is especially important where traditional custom also dictates how matters should be resolved after a person passes away.

Wills and probate doesn’t seem like the sexiest area of law straight out of the box, this personal experience has shifted my perspective somewhat. Seeing the difficult business of executing an estate for myself has encouraged me to think more about this area of law. I’m considering getting some more experience in this area and I think I will look for some mini-pupillages to take a closer look. For the time being, I am glad the matters have been resolved and that my family can have some certainty during this difficult time.

Until next time,

Ps, Don’t forget to watch the BATB GDL and BPTC VLOG with LawCareers.Net on Youtube! Link here: (http://bit.ly/BATBYT) and follow BATB on Twitter! (@batthebar)

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