In the concluding part of this report, DAMILOLA OLUFEMI writes on how costly court processes, endless delays and discrepancies in obtaining Letter of Administration, frustrate access to a deceased person’s bank account by loved ones
The first part of this report detailed the uphill tasks faced by family members trying to access monies saved by their late loved ones in various financial institutions.
While this difficulty was attributed to lack of cooperation from the financial institutions involved and administrative bureaucracies so tough to sail through, PUNCH Investigations learnt that chiefly responsible for this encumbrance is the exorbitant amount demanded by lawyers to process Letters of Administration.
Over N800, 000 legal fee to recover N500, 000 savings
The financial implication of getting this very important document to facilitate access to his late father’s account, has literally, boxed Gbenga Omosoki, an undergraduate of the Tai Solarin University of Education, Ogun State, into a tight corner.
His father, Tunde, a retiree from the Nigeria Port Authority, died on July 19, 2016.
Late Tunde Omosoki, a retired government worker with the Nigeria Port Authority
Gbenga claimed that before his demise, he banked with the defunct Afribank, which later went through several takeovers, to now become Polaris Bank.
Afribank was established by French investors in 1959, just a year before Nigeria’s Independence.
The bank survived the banking consolidation of 2005, which required 89 commercial banks in Nigeria to recapitalise with N25 billion.
At the end, 25 banks were consolidated through mergers or acquisitions.
Afribank was able to still keep its name until 2011, when its licence was revoked by the Central Bank of Nigeria.
However, its customers did not lose their deposits as it became Mainstreet Bank and later, Syke Bank.
In order to protect the customers of Skye Bank after it was taken over by CBN due to the inability to meet its banking obligations, the CBN established a bridge bank – Polaris Bank, to assume the assets and liabilities of Skye Bank.
Gbenga, the first son of the deceased, revealed that he painstakingly raised the sum of N90, 000, out of the N150, 000, demanded by a lawyer to process a Letter of Administration.
He felt saddened that he was yet to get the document due to his inability to pay in full the amount charged by the lawyer.
The undergraduate said he saw it as a duty to get his father’s hard-earned money deposited in the bank and lamented that it was not easy raising the initial deposit.
Gbenga said since his father’s demise, he had singlehandedly, been taking care of his five siblings from the pittance made from his outdoor catering and logistic businesses.
“The N90,000, paid to the lawyer can’t be refunded because she has started the process. I can’t pull through due to several financial commitments. I engaged the lawyer because it became quite frustrating at some point. But now, to continue has become tiring. I have abandoned the money,” he said dejectedly.
Gbenga appealed to the government to make the process for obtaining the document very simple.
Cost of acquiring a Letter of Administration
In order to find out how much lawyers actually charge to process a Letter of Administration, PUNCH Investigations contacted a law firm, KORIAT & Co., which has offices in Lagos and Abuja, through its website found online.
Pretending to be Mathew (a fictitious identity assumed by the correspondent), who wanted to get a Letter of Administration to access the N500, 000, in his grandfather’s savings account, our correspondent sent a message via the firm’s official Whatsapp line and instantly got a response from an employee that identified herself as Osariemen.
The individual wanted to know if the deceased (grandfather) had a pension account and also requested for the identity of the bank where the money was domiciled.
Charged almost N1m to access N500, 000
After a lengthy chat, Osariemen’s estimate of what it would cost to procure the document was near N1m.
She explained that the Letter of Administration will cover only the money in the bank, excluding pension or gratuity.
“Based on the current changes, our professional fee is N800, 000,” she said.
She went on to state in the chat that 10 per cent of the total money in the bank would go into the coffers of the Lagos State government, and aside from the N800, 000 professional fees, another N100, 000, would be charged as miscellaneous, to cover the cost of transportation, follow-up, calls and other expenses.
Price variation in states, law firms
PUNCH Investigations also discovered that the cost of obtaining a Letter of Administration in Nigeria is dependent on law firms and states.
When our correspondent contacted Springfield Law Practice, a Kaduna-based law firm, to find out how much it would cost to obtain the document, he was told by an employee that it would gulp N150, 000, excluding “some extra costs.”
Meanwhile, another firm in Enugu State, Akaraiwe & Associates, revealed that it would charge N100, 000 for the same document.
The firm’s representative, during a phone conversation with our correspondent, said, “Our fee for obtaining a Letter of Administration is N100, 000 and if you make a deposit of 60 per cent when we obtain the Letter of Administration, you will pay the remaining balance”.
The female employee explained that the amount charged does not include the statutory fee of 10 per cent to be deducted by the government.
She gave an assurance that the document will be ready within three months once the agreed percentage is paid.
“To be frank, I don’t want to keep your hopes high, let us give it a period of three months at the very least to finish everything,” she added.
It is going to be a ‘free’ service
An Enugu-based chamber, NwabuezeUgwu Law Firm, charged our correspondent N50, 000, to process the document.
An employee of the firm, who refused to divulge his name, described the fee as tantamount to a “free” service.
After hours of intermittent calls and correspondences via Whatsapp with the man, to see if there could be a reduction in the fee, he (our correspondent) was told emphatically that it was not much.
He said, “It’s going to be a free service. You can just give us N50, 000 as our legal fee. We are assisting you because the amount there (N500, 000) is too small. I wouldn’t be comfortable taking a lot of money from it.
However, it was learnt that the application fee and the 10 per cent meant for the state government will not be part of the N50, 000, legal fee.
“When you collect the initial form, you will pay a certain amount of money. I have forgotten how much it is. I am not sure, but it’s not a big money. I don’t think it’s up to N10, 000,” the man added.
Govts’ 10 per cent, statutory
Based on the consistent references made to the 10 per cent payable to the state government, PUNCH Investigations decided to authenticate the claim.
Ironically, it turned out to be true, as findings showed that the state governments are entitled to 10 per cent of the total amount of money left behind by the deceased once a Letter of Administration is filed.
Speaking on this, a legal practitioner in Delta State, Osagu Collins, explained that the charge is statutory.
He said, “In Delta State, for instance, 10 per cent is what you pay to the state government, which is the total value of what you want to get from the account.”
When asked further if the 10 per cent charge cuts across all states of the federation, the lawyer noted that each state has its own law, but that the maximum percentage that must be charged for the document stands at 10 per cent.
“Issuing a Letter of Administration is what can be handled in any part of the country. The uniform charge is 10 per cent, unless the state wants to be magnanimous enough to bring it down,” Collins clarified.
According to an article published online by the Family Team of Resolution Law Firm, the law that regulates the estates of deceased persons is the ‘Administration of Estates Laws’ of different states of Nigeria.
It stated, “It provides for a legal system of administration of the estate of deceased persons, which entails the verification of the claims of persons claiming to be entitled to the estate of deceased persons and subsequently, grant the authority or power to administer the estate to the persons who have passed through the verification process at the Probate Registry.
“The Law was made with the intent to forestall properties left behind by deceased persons from falling into the hands of unscrupulous persons. particularly those the deceased would not ordinarily wish to inherit his or her properties.”
The article further stated that there are various fees to be paid before Letters of Administration application can be evaluated and approved.
“Once a Letter of Administration is approved by the Probate Registry, an Estate Fee of 5% to 10% of the value of the Estate, depending on the state must be paid to the state government where the Letters of Administration application is made and approved.”
10 per cent, a burden too much
In 2018, Governor Godwin Obaseki, issued an Executive Order altering the provision of Order 53, Rule 11, Paragraph 21 of the Second Schedule of the Edo State High Court (Civil Procedure) Rules 2012, which made it mandatory for persons applying for Letters of Administration to pay 10 per cent of the total value of the property in advance, as a condition for the issuance of the document.
The action, which showed that the 10 per cent remittance to the state government actually exists, was meant to address challenges faced by family members while trying to obtain Letter of Administration,
He said, “Deduction of the 10 per cent Administration of Estate Fee at source and remittance of same to the Probate Registry by the relevant organ of Government is hereby approved to alleviate the suffering and stress encountered by beneficiaries and relatives of deceased government workers/pensioners.
“This Order shall be enforced and complied with by all persons, ministries, departments and agencies in Edo State concerned with or empowered to administer all matters relating to this order.”
Eligibility for Letter of Administration
Section 49(1) of Administration of Estate Law, Lagos State, provides that individuals declared as next-of-kin are allowed to apply in order of preference.
It also states that where the individuals are of indistinguishable preference, the court of law has the right to choose anyone who, in its view, is most suitable.
The Lagos State law stipulates, “The next-of-kin of the deceased is permitted to apply for Letters of Administration, including surviving spouse(s) of the deceased, children of the deceased or the issues of such children that predeceased intestate.
“Others are parents of the deceased, brothers or sisters of the deceased of full blood or the children of such brother or sister who died in the lifetime of the deceased, grandparents of the deceased, uncles and aunts of full blood or their children, creditors of the deceased, Administrator general (where all the preceding fail).”
Explaining the provision, the human rights lawyer, Makolo, noted that when a person dies without a will, a bankers’ certificate would be issued by the court, adding that the document alongside the evidence of the next-of-kin is what would be honoured by the bank.
“A bank would not dishonour a certificate issued by a competent court. In the situation of Abosede, who was a minor when she lost her mom, it was meant to be given to an adult for the benefit of being a minor”, Makolo said.
Duration of getting Letter of Administration
PUNCH Investigations gathered that the length of time it takes to get a Letter of Administration from the court is also a reason most bereaved family members either abandon the process halfway or do not embark on the venture at all.
Our correspondent found out that it takes an average of five months to obtain a Letter of Administration.
Makolo, a lawyer, explained that it would require a serious lawyer or applicant that has the time, to diligently follow through with the process.
The legal practitioner, who revealed that he had helped several clients to process the document in several states in the country, however, said that getting the document can take more than five months, noting that it costs time, energy and money.
This time frame was corroborated by the Resolution Law Firm, as it noted, “The entire process of obtaining Letters of Administration of an Estate can be cumbersome and gruelling especially for persons not familiar with the process, because it deals with inheriting an estate of intestate persons,”
Punch Investigations learnt that after an applicant pays heavily to obtain the document, their travails do not end there.
It was gathered that once a next-of-kin applies for the document, forms are issued, filled and returned upon completion to the probate registry, a division in the High Court, by the lawyer engaged.
After this, a notice is published in a national newspaper, and a photocopy of the publication is submitted to the registry.
A timeframe of 21 days is given to allow any contender (should there be any) to make a counterclaim against the newspaper notice.
Makolo noted processing letter of administration requires investigation.
Once there is no counterclaim, the application for the Letter of Administration and means of the identification of the applicant would then be submitted for verification by the court.
Once the document is ready, the probate registrar hands it over to the lawyer.
“Letter of Administration takes a little time because it requires some level of investigation,” Makolo, the lawyer told Punch Investigations.
Closure of a bank account
On the legality of a bank closing the account of a customer whether dead or alive, Makolo said no financial institution has the right to take such a decision without a court order.
He noted that if a next-of-kin or family member suspects an ongoing fraudulent activity with their deceased loved ones’ account, the bank can be sued.
He said, “For a bank account to be closed, it must come with substantive reasons. The most common one is that it must be at the request of the account holder or in accordance with a court order. It is on rare occasions that a court would order an account to be closed. What is often done is to suspend such an account.
There will be deposits but no withdrawals.”
Same for an estate account
Makolo further noted that for an estate account to be closed (an account opened in the name of the deceased after a Letter of Administration has been submitted to the bank), there must have been conflicts among family members.
“Some of these conflicts may arise from various intendments because of the interest or various interests that may be associated with the account.
“Where those interests are either contending or conflicting, or there are court cases or issues on the account; in that situation, the court can intervene, but for it to intervene, there must be justifiable reason backed by law, Makolo said.
The lawyer said the contentions can only be resolved by the probate registry.
“The complexity of it is that no bank can close an estate account. For it to be closed, there must be a justifiable reason backed by law. Anything short of that is wrong,” Makolo asserted.
Lagos provides online registration
To ease the process of Letter of Administration in Lagos state, the Lagos State High Court Probate Registry provides residents of the state an online platform to register for quick processing of the document.
On its website, it stated that the services provided by the probate registry, form part of the Family Division of the High Court and that the registry deals with ‘non-contentious’ probate business (where there is no dispute about the validity of a will or entitlement to take a grant), and issues grants of representation, known either as probate or Letters of Administration.
For the online application process of the letter to be successful, an administrator for the letter will is expected to provide full name, home address, telephone phone number, email address and photocopy of the means of identification.
Pro bono as an alternative
While some have paid through their nose, to get a Letter of Administration, others have since lost interest due to the huge amount allegedly demanded by lawyers and the attendant strenuous processes.
Punch Investigations, in the course of carrying out this report, discovered a rather strange twist to procuring a Letter of Administration.
Based on findings, in a situation where a next-of-kin cannot afford the amount demanded to process the document, a pro bono (without charge) arrangement can be reached with a lawyer to have the fee deducted once the money has been accessed in the bank.
Nnamdi Uzuegbu advises deceased families who do not have enough money to pay for legal fee to seek service of a pro bono lawyer
Speaking on the legality of this, a human rights lawyer, Nnamdi Uzuegbu advised family members of deceased account holders that cannot afford the legal fee, to seek the service of a pro bono lawyer.
He noted that in the case of a bank deliberately withholding a deceased customer’s savings or suspected to have tampered with the money, the family or next-of-kin can sue the bank.
It can be done seamlessly within a week – MayFresh Mortgage Bank
When MayFresh Mortgage Bank was contacted through its customer care line listed on its website, to know why it was taking a long time to verify the Letter of Administration submitted by Kenechukwu, eldest son of the late Anambra teacher, a male staff said there was need for the young man to revisit the particular branch involved to find out.
The bank, with its headquarters in Aba, Abia state, has a branch in Lagos and some other parts of the country.
The staff noted that its branch in Anambra State, should have verified the Letter of Administration, and advised Kenechukwu to reach out to the bank.
He said, “Let him call them today. Let them tell him what the issue is because if he has a Letter of Administration, they should have verified it by now. Let him know exactly what the problem is. He should be articulate to be able to communicate with us. There is no problem.
“Let him update his current information. Let the person articulate and be clear with the branch. Let him send a mail because he said the last time he communicated with us was in May. May is a long time.”
When asked how long it takes for a Letter of Administration to be verified in court, the bank’s staff said once the document has been submitted, the verification process does not take time.
He said, “It is something that can be done seamlessly within a week. Once it is verified, the person goes to the bank to open an estate account with the name of the deceased. They (the administrators) will now operate that account.”
Zenith Bank reacts:
When Zenith Bank spokesperson, Kusimo Ayoola, was contacted and told about Benjamin’s inability to access his late father’s (John Aileme) deposit, despite presenting a Letter of Administration to the bank, he said detailed information should be sent to his email address, so that he can forward to the appropriate unit for immediate action.
“I wouldn’t even get the details via phone. Why don’t you send it to me via email? That way I can look at what you have sent and then refer it to the appropriate authority. I am not claiming to be an expert on things I don’t know,” he said.
When asked about the processes involved before a next-of-kin can access a deceased person’s account domiciled in Zenith Bank, Ayoola said only the legal department can provide the right information.
He said, “I will refer it to our legal team. They are the ones who are supposed to give information on that. Send me the details on this phone via WhatsApp. I will refer it to the appropriate department.”
Banks to comply with the law – CBN
When PUNCH Investigations reached out to the spokesperson of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Osita Nwanisobi, to inquire if the apex bank was aware of the delays associated with accessing deceased account holders’ savings by their next-of-kin, he said banks in Nigeria operate in compliance with the law.
“It is not about the CBN, it is about what the law says. Whatever the law says, they comply with it. Once a bank complies with the decision of the law on any issue relating to the deceased person, the bank will comply with them,” Nwanisobi said.
When our correspondent asked if the CBN, as part of its oversight functions, can regulate or sanction a bank alleged to have acted excessively in respect to the subject matter, he hung up.
As of the time of filing this report, Nwanisobi had yet to respond to calls and text messages sent to his mobile.