A will or testament is a legal declaration by which a person, the testator, names one or more persons to manage his or her estate and provides for the distribution of their property at death. It is common knowledge that most Nigerians would rather follow their customs and tradition in leaving their inheritance than imbibe the modern method of passing inheritance through a “will”.
But the issue of leaving a “will” is not a strange development in the African culture, and has been an age-long practice in Nigeria from time immemorial. The Igbo custom holds a traditional method of inheritance or “will”, where succession is done by the eldest son; a practise known as “Okpala” or “Diokpa”, but if the deceased was a polygamist and had many sons from several wives, the eldest sons of each of the wives may take part in sharing of the property.
The Yoruba customary law stipulates that children of the deceased, whether male or female, are entitled to inheritance from the deceased property upon his death. The property is shared among the children equally, whether female or male.
A woman, who had experienced the bitter pills of contest of inheritance, is Mrs Lydia Akuko, a mother of four, who resides in Ado, a suburban of Nasarawa State. “My husband was a driver with a bank. He was also a womanizer, and this used to cause serious problems between us,” she alleged, continuing that “he used to chase everything in skirt. Whenever I confronted him, he would beat me up, and most times, he used to be drunk. At a point, my parents came and took me away from him, which I believe was a blessing. After a year, I was informed that he was sick and my parents told me to go and take care of him, which I did. I never knew he had HIV/Aids.
“But when I got there, he confessed to me and asked me to forgive which I did. Eight months later, he died. I didn’t know he left a will until after the burial, when the lawyer came and told the family to inform me.
“On that day, I came with two of my family members, and when the will was read, it was that day we discovered that my late husband had two houses, some shares and over N800,000 in the bank which he had been saving with the names of the children for their education. He didn’t leave anything for his family. And there and then, the mother called me a witch and accused me of killing my husband. They threw me out of the house that night and took my children away from me. Some few days later, they went to the bank to claim the money after lying to the bank that I had died with my husband, and that they were the ones to take care of the children. But the bank insisted that they must see my death certificate, because my husband included my name in the form as the only one to manage the funds for the children. That was how my battle with my in-laws started. They turned my children against me. I had to go to an NGO that took my case up and got a lawyer for me. My first son was asked if he wanted to live with me, but he said he won’t, because I killed their father. I don’t care about the money or houses, all I want are my children,” she told, after making all efforts to secure a good relationship with her children.
The importance of a will can never be overemphasized. Where a deceased person made a will, he is said to have died testate, but when a deceased person did not make a will, he is said to have died intestate.
Barr Elizabeth Daniel, a legal practitioner who spoke with LEADERSHIP Sunday on the issue of will, stated that a will is a very important instrument, because of the impact it leaves after the deceased passes on. A “will” has been known to have saved lives and restored peace within the family. What people don’t really know is that it excludes both our traditional and the English law of inheritance.
According to Barr Daniel, the owner of a Will also gets to distribute his assets the way he wants and he gets to choose who will do it after his dead. Anybody above the age of 18 years old can make a Will, except for military service, seamen or deranged people.
“We always tell our clients to make a Will early, because nobody knows what can happen. It is also imperative for people who are married, because of in-laws. This is because once a person gets married, the rules under which he gets married may become applicable to his estate should he become deceased without making a Will. A person can dispose of his property in the way and manner he deems fit and proper to any person of his choice and in any proportion as long as it is stipulated in his Will,” Daniel said.
The legal practitioner further stated that anybody writing a Will should first start by writing their full names, including his alias if any, address, occupation, telephone numbers, and this is followed by the executors and instructions. This Will must also include instructions as to how his property would be distributed with complete details. The testament can become invalid if the deceased did not sign the Will at the end, in the presence of at least two or more witnesses who must be present at the time of writing and signing the Will.
“We don’t allow the witnesses to read the contents of the Will, except if the owner permits it. But the Will can also become invalid when the owner marries and does not renew the Will; if he makes a Will; if it is revoked; if it is destroyed, or has any kind of alteration, or another Will was revived. Nigerian laws recognise Will weather they are oral or written.
Pastor David Bulus, a clergy from Nasarawa State, stated that “the Bible is full of accountability, and so for us to live in obedience, it’s good to make a Will. It also protects the family. It is also God’s law that says that men must feed their families else they become like infidels. For the Christian to write a Will does not mean that death will soon follow. Everyone should have a Will. The prophet Isaiah told King Hezekiah, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die’ (II Kings 20:1). Wills can provide for the care of the wife or husband, and gifts to religious organisations and other charities. The Will gives the testator an opportunity to help his relatives, widows and orphans,” he said.
On his part, Mallam Abdulaziz Sani, a Muslim cleric, stated that “When a Muslim dies, there are four duties which need to be performed. These are payment of funeral expenses, payment of his or her debts, execution of his or her will, and distribution of the remaining estate among the heirs, according to Sharia. It is the duty of a Muslim who has anything to bequest not to let two nights pass without writing a Will about it. Sahih al-Bukhari hadith also states that, ‘A man may do good deeds for 70 years, but if he acts unjustly when he leaves his last testament, the wickedness of his deed will be sealed upon him, and he will enter the Fire. If, on the other hand, a man acts wickedly for 70 years, but is just in his last Will and testament, the goodness of his deed will be sealed upon him, and he will enter the Garden’. Our Will includes both bequests and legacies, instructions and admonishments, and assignments of rights. In Islam, the Will (wasiyya) can be oral or written, and the intention of the testator must be clear that the wasiyya is to be executed after his death,” he explained.