Law Professor Calls For Periodical Review Of Laws On ‘Will’

Professor Babatunde Oni (SAN)

Professor of Private and Property Law, Babatunde Oni has called for periodic reviews of the legal framework governing wills in the various states of the federation to ensure its continued relevance in the evolving socio-legal context.

Professor Oni, who is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and lectures at Law department of University of Lagos (UNILAG) said this adaptive approach will enable the legal system to address emerging challenges and incorporate best practices in the field of inheritance law.

Prof. Oni stated the above in his inaugural lecture delivered last Wednesday at the J. F. Ade Ajayi Auditorium of the University of Lagos titled, “Crying from the Grave: Trust’s Resonance in Inheritance Tales.”

The law professor also called for legislative support for law of restitution over unlawful conversion of inheritable property.

He noted: “while alive, property owners may decide to adopt gift inter vivos as well as trust inter vivos but emphasized that disposition made during one’s life, reduces possible disputes that may arise as a result of absence of estate planning.

“The law of restitution seeks reimbursement from another who had benefitted from someone else’s property without legal justification.

“The principles are based on enrichment, deprivation, and the absence of a juristic reason for enacting legislative intervention. It becomes necessary, other than criminal prosecution, to compel families or individuals to disgorge inheritable property or the value unlawfully converted by the laws of wills.

“The administration of estate laws of various states should be amended to reflect this”, he stressed.

The law professor also listed many estate planning mechanisms with varying degrees of complexities and limitations to include Wills, Trusts, Gifts, Power of Attorney, Succession by Contract and naming a beneficiary for life insurance, retirement accounts, securities and bank accounts, among others. 

He explained that in Nigeria, the inheritance of a deceased person’s assets is influenced by various circumstances, including their religion, indigenous belief system, or customary law and practice.

“If a person dies ‘intestate’, the law of intestate succession in Nigeria involves the application of three systems: The English Common Law system, The Administration of Estate Laws of the various states, and Customary law, which includes Islamic Law. It is important to note that Islamic law is considered to be equivalent to indigenous customary law. 

“However, it is not subject to the strict rules of proof and validity of customary law as it is derived from known and written sources like the Qur’an and Sunnah. It should be amended to include provisions that specifically address the admissibility of electronic Wills, acknowledging them as valid testamentary documents”, he said.

To enhance the reliability and accessibility of wills, Prof Oni said there should be a concerted effort to digitize and manage wills through a centralized database. Adding that leveraging technology for will documentation and storage would not only reduce the risk of loss or tampering but also provide a systematic means for authorized individuals to access these documents promptly.

“A comprehensive national database should be established to centralize the storage and management of wills across all states in Nigeria. This centralized system would facilitate efficient data sharing, minimize duplication, and promote transparency in the administration of Wills, curbing corruption and ensuring that the rightful beneficiaries receive their inheritance without undue delays or interference.”

He therefore proposed that there should be the development and adoption of a standardized format for wills to streamline the process of drafting and reduce ambiguities, adding that a standardized template can serve as a guide for testators, minimizing errors and legal disputes, and aiding in the efficient administration of estates.

He said public awareness campaigns should be launched to educate the populace about the importance of drafting wills, “the potential risks of not having a will, and the benefits of utilizing the reformed systems” he said, adding that increased awareness will encourage more individuals to engage in proper estate planning, reducing the likelihood of intestacy and subsequent legal complications.

While also suggested that launching of awareness campaigns to educate communities about the benefits of trusts in inheritance matters should include information on how trusts can preserve family wealth, provide for dependents, and mitigate disputes. Education is key to fostering acceptance and understanding of the concept.

Prof Oni advocated for the formal recognition of customary trusts within the legal framework, incorporating provisions into relevant laws to acknowledge and legitimize trusts as a recognized instrument for managing and distributing inheritance under customary law.

“In addition, a community-based trust model must be developed and tailored to the specific cultural and social dynamics of each community. This involves working closely with local leaders and traditional institutions to create trust structures that align with customary practices while adhering to basic legal principles.