Bridging the Gap

Yaser Ali helps clients integrate Islamic law into their estate plans

Published in 2021 Southwest Super Lawyers Magazine

If it weren’t for Islamic inheritance law, math would not be what it is today. The “father of algebra,” a 9th century Muslim mathematician, wrote the book that gave algebra its name. He did so to solve complex Islamic inheritance law problems. 

“Islamic law regulates the way you earn your wealth and the way you invest that wealth, and then upon death … there’s a set of rules that function like an intestacy scheme that govern the distribution of the decedent’s estate,” explains Yaser Ali, who devotes over half of his practice to Islamic estate planning.

Ali’s interest in the topic was piqued in 2010 after Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting courts from recognizing Sharia law. A Muslim man sued, and the courts struck down the law. Still in law school at the time, Ali wrote a law review note on the case. 

“Because of this law,” Ali says, “[the plaintiff] wouldn’t be able to have his will probated in accordance with his religious beliefs.”

Ali, who is Muslim and studied with Islamic scholars while in law school, realized there weren’t many attorneys who are knowledgeable in both secular and Islamic law. “This seemed like a natural fit for me to develop this practice, and it’s grown quickly over the years,” he says. “I think there’s no area of law where a person’s beliefs are more relevant than estate planning, and for a lot of people, those values are motivated by religion. … Being able to facilitate and assist community members in a way that they’re able to take care of their family while concurrently fulfilling their religious obligations, and at the same time doing so in a manner that is tax-optimized and often includes charitable giving, for me, it’s just an incredibly fulfilling practice.”

Educating clients is a significant aspect of his work. In distributions, for example, Islamic law stipulates that the first things to be taken out are burial and funeral expenses. Debts are next; then up to one-third of the estate is discretionary, meaning it can be given to family members who are not heirs by law or to charities. The remaining estate is nondiscretionary, distributed according to residuary Islamic law provisions.

When he started practicing, Ali recognized that there weren’t many resources for lawyers on the topic. Most of the books about classical Islamic law are written in Arabic and don’t account for modern issues Muslims face in the U.S. So he and co-author Ahmed Shaikh set out to write the book themselves. They submitted a proposal to the ABA in 2015, then spent the next few years researching, writing and editing. Estate Planning for the Muslim Client was published in 2019.

“The book is intended for attorneys, financial planners, trust officers,” Ali says, “basically, to take someone from a complete novice to a foundational understanding, at least, of how Islamic law integrates with estate planning.” 

Navigating two distinct legal systems has its challenges. How assets are owned and titled, for example, affects whether someone can distribute assets to their Islamic heirs or if those assets will automatically pass to the surviving joint tenant or beneficiary. For clients who have assets or heirs abroad, there’s another wrinkle. “The entire estate is supposed to be distributed consistent with the religious rules, but, of course, we can only prepare documents that govern the assets that are located here in the U.S.,” Ali says.

Challenges aside, the rewards are significant. “One of the biggest parts of my practice has been being able to facilitate tens of millions of dollars—probably a lot more than that—in charitable bequests and sophisticated charitable gifts,” he says. 

“Estate planning is one of the few times where you visit a lawyer when you’re not in trouble, and it’s one of the few times where—at least prior to COVID—your clients give you a hug when they walk out and they feel like a burden has been lifted off their shoulders.”


Local Leadership

Yaser Ali also serves as a religious leader within his local Muslim community. He leads daily prayers and weekly sermons, is active in interfaith activities and delivers educational lectures at mosques around the valley. And he’s started two Quranic education programs for children in Phoenix. “I was fortunate enough growing up to be able to memorize the Quran,” Ali says. “That’s something that I now am facilitating and imparting to other young Muslim kids.”

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