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Dear Shade,

Please help us. Until my father’s unexpected demise (he slumped and died), we did not realise he had a secret family. We always thought his frequent visits to Ibadan were business related but apparently, we were wrong. The Ibadan woman bore him two sons and a daughter while my mother has just my twin sister and I. While he married my mother traditionally, he married the other woman at the marriage registry. The problem now is she has proof that over half of my father’s property were purchased in her name and she is insistent on claiming ownership, as there is no Will. If this is allowed to happen, my mother would be left with just the house we live in and a plot of land. The company, buildings and trucks carry the woman’s name. My mother is devastated, how would she be able to cope, he has given everything they worked for to another woman. The extended family supports his second wife because she has sons and her children are still young. Is there anything we can do?

Bimbo, Lagos

Hello Bimbo,

I sincerely empathize with you. Dealing with such daunting discoveries after losing a dear person can be quite overwhelming. The situation is a little complex given that your father married both women.

It is important to note that the law recognises both the statutory marriage (court marriage) and the customary or traditional marriage. The major contrast between the systems is that while the statutory marriage speaks to monogamy, Customary or Native law is potentially polygamous. From your explanation, your mother’s marriage to your father falls under the category of the customary marriage while his marriage to the other woman is a statutory marriage. Although a part of the Nigerian law upholds the potency of the customary law as binding, other legal principles suggest that any Customary marriage which precedes subsequent Statutory marriage would be rendered void by the subsequent statutory marriage

For the distribution of your father’s assets, if most of your father’s properties were purchased in the other woman’s name, then those said assets would be presumed by the law as belonging to her and it would be impossible for such assets to form part of your father’s assets or Estate. You may however be able to prove that the presumption of the other woman’s title to the assets if you can present any evidence of fraud, misrepresentation or show that she was only holding the assets on behalf of your late father.

Since your farther died intestate (without a Will), a critical point of concern is the subject of obtaining a letter of administration.  Particularly as there is a hierarchy of persons authorised to apply for this letter. The first person with a right to apply for the letter of administration would be his statutory wife (provided the Statutory Marriage is not voided) and the children (who are adults) following in order of priority.

If your father’s statutory marriage is found to be void by a court based on the provisions of the Marriage Act, then his assets will be distributed based on the existing customs that govern asset distribution in his culture. Otherwise, the distribution of your late father’s assets would be based on the relevant Administration of Estate Law. Most of those Laws (particularly in Lagos State and the States of the Old Western Region of Nigeria including Oyo State) provide that where the deceased had a statutory marriage, the surviving spouse would be entitled to the personal chattels (such as clothes, cars, furniture, jewellery etc) and a third of all assets of the deceased spouse.  The remaining two-thirds of the assets may then be shared amongst all the deceased’s children.

This situation shows why it is important to have a Will to prevent any sort of confusion as to the distribution of one’s assets. It also reveals that a Statutory Marriage offers greater advantages in the event of the demise and intestacy of a spouse than the traditional marriage. It likewise points to the fact that women should not assume the state of their husbands’ estates. They should themselves plan their estates and encourage their spouses to do the same.

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