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Karume
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Kenya National Bureau of Statistics
Njenga Karume

Adopt solid inheritance, succession plans

An undeclared inheritance is extremely likely to be poisonous gift.

A starting point is to discuss your plans with everyone. FILE PHOTO | NMG

There is a dramatic scene, played across many a classical tale, where the call, letter, or visit comes from some unknown lawyer, and an inheritance is declared. Suddenly, the star is wealthy, all of their life challenges swept away by a deceased benefactor whose appreciation now becomes clear. However, in real life, succession and inheritance are far less wonderful, characterised by court cases, disputes that rip families apart, and bad will. They push businesses into ownership gridlock and create administrative hurdles that can prove impassable. It’s an outcome that few of us would wish on our loved ones as our last will and testament. Yet, the problem is a global one – my own family now has several siblings at war on inheritance disputes. But in Kenya it is worse.Indeed, earlier this year, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reported succession and inheritance as the top cause of disputes in the family, capping land, and overshadowing by far other conflicts over resources, crime, children, or tenancies. And the problem afflicts rich and poor alike – albeit the disputes of the rich play out in our courts over years, where the disputes of the poor remain far more local and private. Across all, the reality is that the death of an elder and the division of their assets is likely to be the most challenging and potentially divisive event that any family ever lives through. And the reasons why it is worse in Kenya are two. At first base, families don’t like to talk about money.Previous surveys show that Kenya hits a world low when it comes to trust of family members on money issues, which makes talking about the divvy-up of capital on death a largely no-go zone.Yet, wondrous as the movies make the ‘surprise inheritance’ moment, it almost always spells trouble.

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The fact is that an undeclared inheritance is extremely likely to be poisonous gift, with every kind of research into successful succession and inheritance showing that the key is not the wit of the lawyers, but the level of family discussion and agreement long before the passing – even, in the most successful transitions, across a lifetime, from when the beneficiaries are children.The second factor that injects fuel into Kenya’s global high in lost hours, funds, and co-operation to inheritance disputes is the absence of legal clarity.Our constitution upholds customary laws that often conflict with national statute, leaving many inheritance disputes caught between competing rules, and often adjudicated by local officials with a relatively free hand – who have, further, been known to by ‘buyable’ once competition is running at full throttle. So how do we stop this mess for those we leave behind? Njenga Karume proved to us all that no amount of pre-planning can leave a watertight inheritance and succession – with his 75-year trust that began well before disintegrating into legal disputes between the trustees and the beneficiaries.But easing the ‘dispute burden’ on those we leave behind need not be as complicated as Karume’s trust.A starting point is to discuss your plans with everyone. Hard as it may seem, as a subject that never comes with a good moment, that conversation, the positioning of the topic as a regular known, discussed, amended, present as a constant, is the single most proven way to achieve a smooth succession.And backing that with legal documentation is easier than almost any other exercise of personal administration. Forms, or systems that generate wills, proliferate on the internet. And wills don’t actually have to be drawn up by lawyers. Many of the better systems for creating them online come with sections and organise the wording in processes built by lawyers.Once drawn up, they only need signature witnesses, not an extra attorney. Courts, local officials, and families themselves may well over-ride any last will, anyway.But if you want to minimise the damage and family breakdown that is currently likely to follow your death, get the buy-in of your relatives and dependents: and from there it’s up to them how willing they are to hurt one another over money. Your part will be done.

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