By Romanus Okoye

The term “next of kin” usually refers to a person’s closest living relative(s). Individuals who count as next of kin include those with a blood relation, such as children, or those with a legal standing, such as spouses or adopted children.

The eighth edition of the Black Laws Dictionary defines a next of kin to be “a person or persons closely related to a decedent (recently dead person) by blood or affinity.” Constitutional lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mike Ozekhome said: “Another definition is an intestate’s heir- that is the person or persons entitled to inherit personal property from a decedent who was not left a will.

“Next of Kin was defined in the case of JOSEPH v. FAJEMILEHIN O. O. & ANOR (2012) LPELR-9849(CA) as follows: Next of kin, by definition, is the person declared to be the nearest of kindred to the declarant; in this case the 2nd Respondent.

“A person’s next of kin often take(s) precedence over others in inheritance cases, especially where a person dies intestate. Inheritance rights use the next of kin relationship for anyone who dies without a will and no spouse or children. 

“Surviving individuals may also have responsibilities during and after their relative’s life. For example, the next of kin may need to make medical decisions if the person becomes incapacitated, or take responsibility for their funeral arrangements and financial affairs after their relative dies.

How does a next of kin work in Nigeria?

Under the administration of estate in some states in Nigeria, a beneficiary of the deceased estate need not be a next of kin, but a legitimate inheritor of the deceased estate. This was decided in the case of ONUKOGU v. NWOKOLO & ANOR (2021) LPELR-55185(CA) where the Appellate court stated that:

“Section 3 of the Administration of Real Estate Law Cap 2 Laws of Kano State provide thus: ‘When a person dies intestate possessed of real estate, the court shall, in granting letters of administration, have regard to the rights and interests of persons interested in his real estate, and his heir-at-law, if not one of the next of kin, shall be equally entitled to the grant with the next of kin.’ This provision is replicated in most Administration of Real Estate Laws in most states in Nigeria. When you state your next of kin to a financial institution, your financial assets do not immediately go to the next of kin. It simply means that they are the first point of contact if something should happen to you. The next of kin is supposed to be a trusted person that you know will do the right thing and ensure that all processes are done correctly.   Under English Law and the Administration of Estate Laws of various states, the surviving spouse together with the children of the deceased inherits his estate to the exclusion of every other person. The parents of the deceased takes next after the surviving spouse and children, followed by brothers and sisters of the full blood, brothers and sisters of half-blood, grandparents, aunties and uncles of full blood relation to the parents of the deceased etc. This was the position in KEKEREOGUN & ORS V. OSHODI (1971) LPELR-1686(SC) subject however to contrary provisions under the Administration of Estate Laws of various states.

The Supreme Court explains how to determine the next of kin of a deceased as follows in the above mentioned case:

“The rules governing the rights to administration in Nigeria in the circumstances of this case are the rules in England where death occurred there before 1926 and are set out on pages 166 and 167 of Williams on Executors and Administrators 13th Edition as follows: ‘In the first place, the children and their lineal descendants to the remotest degree, and on failure of children, the parents of the deceased are entitled to the administration; then follow brothers and sisters, then grandfathers and grandmothers, then uncles or nephews, great-grandfathers and lastly cousins.

“When the contest is between one of the half blood, the whole blood is preferable in the grant of administration to the half-blood, though the majority of interests concur in the latter, unless material objections can be proved against the claimant of the whole blood.” In our view, there can be no question that as between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd defendants who are half-brothers of the deceased and the plaintiff who is his cousin, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd defendants as next-of-kin have the right to administration.” Per CHARLES OLUSOJI MADARIKAN, JSC (Pp 7 – 8 Paras B` – A).

“In view of the foregoing, there is nothing special about next-of-kin as far as succession is concerned. Next-of-kin is merely the first contact point if anything happens to you. He is someone empowered to make decisions for you in times of emergency or where you are not readily available or unable to make the decisions yourself. He is someone empowered to provide necessary information about you where needed such as confirming your identity. He is also someone positioned to make medical decisions such as providing consent for a medical procedure. At best, what a next-of-kin can do after the demise of the deceased is perhaps to ensure that necessary steps are taken towards obtaining letters of administration from the probate. The typical Nigerian’s conception of the term, “next-of-kin” is therefore erroneous. A next-of-kin can inherit only if he is named in a will as a beneficiary, or by his status he is entitled by law to inherit; but not actually because he is named as the next-of-kin of the deceased in a bank or place of work.”

Another lawyer, Kunle Edun, former Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) National Publicity Secretary & Executive Director, Centre for Transparency and Defence of Human Rights, said: “The definition of the term ‘next of kin’ has been given different connotations by different persons, but the legal definition remains constant.

“In the case of Mohammed v. Tijani (2021) LPELR-54215 (CA) the Court of Appeal per Cordelia Ifeoma Jombo-Ofo, JCA defined it to mean” the person declared to be nearest of kindred to the declarant. See Black’s Law Dictionary and Chanbers 20th Century English Dictionary.

“To simplify the meaning to the man on the street, it means the person that is authorised by someone to take certain decisions or actions on his behalf and in his absence. Usually, the issue comes up after a person has died and he names someone as his next of kin in his personnel file with his employers. The next of kin must be any person that the person trusts. It could be a friend or a relation. It could even be an incorporated entity. The next of kin is not a beneficiary but the person appointing him may also decide to compensate him for the work he has done pursuant to the appointment as next of kin.

“As a matter of reality, it is always advisable that one’s next of kin should be that person that can easily be accessed and trusted enough to act in the absence of the person appointing him. There is no law that states that it is only one’s spouse or children that can be named as next of kin. However, it is advisable that in cases of employment, one’s spouse or relation should be named as next of kin. Next of kin is not the same thing as being given an inheritance; no, far from it. It is not a will where the testator states how his properties can be distributed. He is also not an Executor of a Will. The simplest definition of his task is that he is the person to be contacted in the event of any emergency.”

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