Explained: What Happens to Absentees’ Properties When They Return Home?
A new amnesty decree, Decree No. 7 of 2022, has brought back to the fore hypothetical questions regarding the fate of housing, land, and property rights for absentees, should they return home.
Syrian security apparatus have refused to acknowledge thousands of the forcibly disappeared people in the country’s detention centres or to announce whether they are alive or dead. In many cases, relatives of missing persons have been able to obtain oral confirmation about the death of their loved ones and, in some cases, even official death certificates. However, there is still some hope that the missing will come back home alive.
Syria’s Personal Status Law has provisions specifically addressing missing persons – i.e. people who may be dead or alive or whose location is unknown. A person is no longer considered “missing” when they return, die, or are judged to be dead. Under Article 31 of the Civil Code, the provisions of Islamic Sharia apply to a missing person if there are no other special laws being applied to them.
The Personal Status Law makes a distinction between three main types of cases in this regard:
First, cases of doubt over whether or not the missing person is dead or alive. In such cases, the missing person has all the legal liabilities of a living person.
Second, cases where the missing person is judged to be dead. Under Article 205 of the Personal Status Law, a judge rules a missing person to be dead at the request of concerned parties. In most cases, this judgement comes when the missing person reaches the age of 80 or if they have been missing for four years amidst extenuating circumstances, such as war. In both cases, the life of the missing person is considered to have ended and their estate is distributed to the heirs.
Third, cases where the missing person reappears living after they were judged dead. In such cases, if their estate has been distributed to their heirs, they are authorised to recover it. They also may receive any inheritance entitled to them from relatives who have died. There is only one condition for such recoveries and inheritances: that those properties and assets still exist. That is, the formerly missing person may only recover what remains of those assets and may not recover what their heirs have already disposed of or consumed. This is because the heirs in such cases did not independently seize those assets and properties by force, but rather inherited them based on a judicial ruling.
If a court judges that a missing person is dead, and the heirs distribute the person’s estate among themselves and transfer ownership to their names in the Land Registry, and then the missing person returns alive, the returnee may file a lawsuit to cancel the registration. This is because such distribution is contrary to the principles stipulated in Article 14 of Land Registry Law No. 188 of 1926. The lawsuit goes before the competent civil court in accordance with the value of the property under dispute. Such lawsuits to cancel an entry in the Land Registry are a type of personal real estate lawsuit filed by the plaintiff as either the owner of a debt or the individual entitled to confront a debtor. There is no need to record in the Land Registry that the lawsuit occurred.