Today I don my dark, hooded cloak to get myself in the right mood to discuss one of those subjects that we don't usually relish talking about, especially at the dinner table. So if you are eating dinner, come back and pick this up later. The terrible topic at hand is that of death. This may not be crowd-pleasing content for those of us who hope we're going to live for a long time, but the implications of not discussing it are, in my opinion, much worse. As a financial adviser it's one of the things I have to raise with new clients, and is consistently one of the most ignored areas of financial planning.
In a recent conversation with Vivian Albertyn, partner at Middle East Funeral Services (www.mefs.ae), I learnt a great deal about what happens when someone dies in the UAE or the region at large. Mr Albertyn has lived in Dubai for six years, and has managed the company for two and a half years. He finds that much of his time is spent dealing "with insurance companies, the guys who offer medical and maybe travel insurance".
It's usually a "repatriation of mortal remains" clause in the insurance policy that begets the interaction with Mr Albertyn, as the insurance provider has an obligation to deal with the sometimes tricky task of returning your body to your country of domicile, if that is your wish. With such a large percentage of expatriates in the UAE, it is easy to see why the business is alive. "It's important that your relatives know that a mortal remains clause exists in your insurance policy, otherwise you rely on the insurance provider proactively mentioning it", Mr Albertyn says. This apparently doesn't always happen, and has undoubtedly led to people having to pay large sums of money to carry out their loved ones' final wishes.
"The medical insurance company would typically contact us directly", he says, "and we would take up the proceedings from there". And it seems the process can be complex if you die while you are here, or even worse if you are travelling elsewhere on business or holiday. Mr Albertyn takes this topic seriously: "Whenever I travel I make sure my insurance covers me, and my secretary knows where the paperwork is".
When they are called in, Middle East Funeral Services would first take control of your mortal remains, perhaps via a power of lawyer arrangement, and their services include transport, a church service if required, a coffin, and all documentation. "When a death occurs in a hospital, we would assist the family to administer a statement with the police [in the UAE it is the relative's or sponsor's responsibility to report the death]," he explains. "When the death occurs outside of a hospital, the police are usually involved and they would follow up with any statements they require.
"We would get involved at an early stage to take the burden away from the relatives. The whole process can take anything from 2 days up to 10 days, depending on the circumstances, and we're getting quite experienced in expediting this". At this stage, Mr Albertyn espouses a view regularly covered in personal finance journalism, that of having an up-to-date will in place. "It is so important to have a will", he says, "to ensure your belongings and assets over here get assigned quickly, especially if your wish is for them not to be subject to Shariah law. Without a will everything will take longer and it will be more of a burden on your relatives".
He also agrees with my view that it is a will in your country of domicile that is important, rather than having a separate will in the UAE, although it's vital that the executor knows if you have assets here. During my conversation I couldn't help but think that some people would be comforted to learn that the medical insurance companies had this topic covered, but in reality not all insurance plans offer the same.
A quick check confirmed that just about every international provider offers the service, but some offer it as standard, while it's optional in others' plans. Wouldn't it be a good use of your time to check your medical cover for the "mortal remains clause"? I asked Mr Albertyn the implications of death in the UAE for an expatriate where insurance doesn't provide cover. "The immediate issue is the paperwork and knowing what to do to", he says. "Many people will want their remains to be taken back to their home country, and they need to work through the process of releasing the remains to the family before arranging transportation. They would also have to face the cost of repatriating the body themselves. For example, repatriating a body to the UK might cost approximately Dh30,000".
It's possible to choose a local cremation or burial if you wish, or to keep the costs down if you do not have cover, but the options should be understood and compared to your expectations before you rely on this. According to Mr Albertyn, "you are only allowed to be buried or cremated in the Emirate under which your visa applies, so if you have an Abu Dhabi visa and your surviving family want to use the cremation facilities in Dubai, for example, this would cause a problem".
When asked about the facilities around the Emirates, he believes the standards vary a great deal. Apparently, for cremation, the Dubai facilities are the only viable choice for his company. I cannot imagine a more sad and unpleasant tale than that of a wife or husband, away from home, dealing with the sudden death of their spouse, and in the midst of their grief also having to go through the rigmarole of managing their mortal remains. I personally would far rather the professionals take care of it, and the easiest way to ensure this is to make sure that your medical insurance covers you.
Stuart Birch is a financial consultant with Acuma Wealth Management. He can be reached at email@example.com