Ngarambe (not real name) is in his 70’s with a wife and five children all living in Kigali. He has a house valued at about Rwf50 million, a plot of land with a few cattle and runs a medium-sized business upcountry.
As a person who has worked and accumulated some wealth, he believes that anytime he can die and the family will have to take over all his properties and belongings. To make sure that this does not bring conflicts, he wrote a ‘will’.
“I called two elders of my church who happen to be my friends and another best friend of mine, sat down with them and wrote a testament clearly indicating the members of my family who will inherit the properties that I own,” he narrates.
He adds that he made sure that the business will be taken by the elder son, while the rest of the properties will be distributed among the rest of the children, all this was done in presence of witnesses.
“When people die without a will their children can fight for that property, damaging family ties and having a negative effect on society,” he says.
Ngarambe is one of the few people in Rwanda who have written wills. There are not many people like him who have written wills that would see their family members take over the ownership of their property once they pass on.
Understanding a will
A will or testament is a legal document through which a person, the testator, expresses their wishes as to how their property is to be distributed at death, and names one or more persons, the executor, to manage the estate until its final distribution.
The Rwandan law provides for the procedure of making a will. It says that the testator gratuitously transfers his or her property, the full ownership of which is acquired by the legatee (recipient) after the testator’s death.
Victor Nkindi who is in his 30’s says he hasn’t written a will so far, but he understands the value of signing a will and plans to write it after he starts a family and gets property that can be distributed among his family members.
“Wills are useful because when someone dies, it cuts out property wrangles in the family. I plan to write it as soon as I get valuable properties and enough resources that I can distribute to them once I die,” he says.
Nkindi observes that in Rwanda, every time someone with tangible properties passes on, quarrels emerge among family members simply because a deceased person did not specify who will take over the ownership of their properties.
“In our country, when someone with noticeable possessions dies, property wrangles happen especially between the immediate and extended family.”
What the law says
According to Maurice Munyentwari, a lawyer, the 2016 law which governs matrimonial regimes, donations and successions, highlights that a will can be written at any period of time prior to death.
“There is no specific period of time at which a person can make a will, but the law says that a spouse can make a will prior to his or her death. Any person with the required legal capacity can do it, and this has to be either authentic or private,” he notes.
He explains that an authentic will is made by the testator before the notary or the civil registrar of the testator’s place of residence or domicile while a private will is handwritten by the testator in the presence of at least two witnesses, dated and signed by the testator and witnesses.
“The original document and the register are kept confidential and can only be made accessible to those involved in the will after the testator’s death but the law provides room to amend the will any time,” Munyentwari notes.
The legislation additionally specifies how gifts and donations are distributed among family members and friends. Of late, there have been cases of family feuds which sought intervention of courts to mend conflicts over property.
Friedricks Kawesi, a Kigali-based teacher, thinks that as much as the will matters, investing in building stronger relationships for the families, matters more than anything else.
“It is important to create healthy and strong relationship with our families. With or without a will, if the family and children are not in a good relationship, the will may definitely mean nothing. This is very critical,” he said.
Augustin Iyamuremye, a senior citizen, explains that previously wills would be made according to cultural and traditional norms, and parents would distribute their properties according to their convenience.
“In the past, a parent would call his children and some of the family and the community, and he would distribute his properties according to the potential he sees in every child but also the love that he had for each one of them,” he says.
But with the law in place, he adds, everything is done according to the procedures that the law says should be followed.
“It was easier to donate a cow to a neighbor or another friend verbally, but this has changed as the law was established.
The law acts beyond the cultural and traditional norms,” Iyamuremye who is also the head of the Rwanda Elders Advisory Council says, adding that they are continuing to sensitize people, especially those in rural areas where more family disputes have been seen.