Next of kin

Who is your next of kin? Your spouse, child, sibling, parent, friend, lawyer, accountant, domestic manager (DM)? The first five are the norm, and the following two are relatively common if you can afford professionals to manage your wealth. The one that should have made you pause is your DM. Why would your DM be your next of kin, you ask? Some of you have registered insurance cards for your children using your DMs details. In my case, my DM is the other person who has keys to my house. If I fell and couldn’t get out of my beloved bathtub, you’d have to breakdown the door or call her. Same if I lose my keys or was otherwise incapacitated. I’ve informally made her custodian of my home and its contents.

Whether you are opening a bank account, starting a new job or taking a flight in this COVID-19 age, the official forms include a next of kin slot. Most Kenyans don’t take this information request seriously because we do not understand the importance. Worse yet, the phrase has been used in different contexts to mean other things, compounding our lack of knowledge. The term can refer to an emergency contact, referee, guarantor, legal agent or beneficiary, depending on the context. If you ask the question in different contexts, you will likely get a different name every time.

For instance, the custodian of my home is my DM. If I were married, then my spouse would have another spare key. I could also choose to give it to a friend. My primary considerations are security, preservation of my home’s sanctity, and the next of kin’s proximity. If I misplace my key or fall in the bathtub, I need to get the spare quickly.

If you’re filling out a new employee form, you’ll notice the emergency contact slot. If I had an accident or fell sick at work, this is the person the employer should call. However, some employers use this contact to mean beneficiary. They would then pay final dues to the person listed in this slot. This can be quite problematic. When I lived in South Sudan, my next of kin was a friend. I chose her because she lived near me, knew my family and preferences. While she’d be the one to contact in an emergency, e.g. I fell ill and needed to go home, she definitely would not be the beneficiary of my final dues.

When you open a bank account or transact with a financial institution, one of the data requests is a next of kin. I have seen this contact used as,

  • a referee - introducing you to the institution or as a reference for a product,
  • a guarantor - taking on responsibility for your liabilities and,
  • a beneficiary – recipient of dues/benefits when the contract expires or upon the death of the principal

When you visit a hospital for the first time, they ask for the name and contact details of a next of kin. Again, this one is a tricky request, and you need to think it through before putting just any name on the form. The person you nominate should be someone you trust to make decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated and can protect your privacy. You will also need to tell them your wishes beforehand so they can fulfil them for you if you can’t. For instance, some people do not want to be resuscitated or are organ donors. Make sure your next of kin knows this. Since your next of kin may not be a family member, ensure they know how to reach your family and can keep them apprised of your status. We’ve heard the stories of sick people abroad whose families are unknown and can’t be reached.

Who are you putting in as your next of kin?

With this context, I went out on these Kenyan streets to find out who you are putting in as your next of kin. On the home front, primarily DMs and members of the household are custodians. Among the single people, keys were kept in the office, car or given to friends who were reachable and responded quickly in emergencies. Interestingly, some men will not give their keys to a “Mama fua” or the woman in their lives. It is too much of a commitment and invasion of space.

On the employer front, it is apparent that employers need to be clear on whether the request is for beneficiaries or emergency contacts. My beneficiary could be an underage child, but I really wouldn’t want you to call the child in an emergency. Also, employers should use this information for emergencies only. It is not an open invitation to contact spouses and parents on a whim. Confidentiality and privacy rules apply. Due to abuse of this information, most people were sceptical of giving information and, when mandated, did not always provide the correct details. The most common contacts were spouse, parent, sibling or adult child. It is essential to keep this information updated with every milestone: marriage, divorce, and children’s birth. HR will not resolve disputes but will stick to the details that you provided as beneficiaries.

At the hospital, you need to choose someone who is reachable and knows what your wishes are. Medical records are confidential, and the decisions are often life and death. My family members are my next of kin for medical emergencies, even if we are not in the same location. They can give consent on the phone as they work their way to me. The majority of respondents said the same, selecting mothers, siblings and spouses specifically. However, there was concern that there were some medical issues or procedures that they wouldn’t want to share with parents or spouses, and in those instances, people will put a sibling or friend as a next of kin.

I’ve saved the financial front for last as it is the one with the most impact and is most often misused. Next of kin should not be an emergency contact. The confidentiality rules are unambiguous – financial institutions are in violation by discussing my accounts with anyone other than me unless I have used them as a guarantor.

A referee’s responsibility ends at introducing me to the financial institution. Once upon a time, banks required you to have a letter of recommendation from a referee before opening an account for you. This is less of a requirement these days, but some lending institutions still require the referee before granting you access to credit. Select a person of good character to be your referee, as this could affect your credit score. Respondents use employers, parents, spouses, friends and siblings as referees for financial institutions.

Guarantors are people who take responsibility for liability. Of all the questions, the respondents were most comfortable giving spouses as the next of kin for this function. This finding contrasts with the beneficiary question where very few respondents gave spouse names but instead gave parents, specifically mothers, siblings and even underage children, before considering spouses. The rationale here is that spouses would not always act in their best interest. Ladies were concerned that the husband would use the money for the wrong things, like entertaining other women in the event of their demise or incapacitation. Men generally wouldn’t share information about their total wealth, or lack thereof, with their wives to prevent discussions about their decisions.

Do note that the wealth of your underage child reverts to the guardian until they become of age. It may not be wise to put the child if the intent is to exclude your spouse. We should delve into why you are marrying or having children with someone you cannot trust with your wealth, but that is a story for another day!

Unclaimed Assets

Your next of kin information in finances is very important. As with employment details, ensure to keep it up-to-date. If you are intestate, without a will, at the very least, this gives guidance on who the intended beneficiaries are. Further, do inform your beneficiaries of your accounts and assets. Given the news stories on murder plots, kidnappings and so on, I understand why you may not want to tell your family your actual holdings. However, the hard work you are doing now will not benefit your family if you don’t tell them about your assets. You will be enriching the government at the expense of your family. At some point, the Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority was sitting on KES 3bn in unclaimed assets, with unclaimed insurance benefits accounting for 25% of this.

Who knows what is happening with land and real estate. Unless you come across a title deed, you will never know my real estate investments. If I’m in the habit of going for scouting trips with friends and don’t tell my family, it is likely only my friends will know about the purchase. Upon my demise, either the land will revert to the government due to unpaid rates, or an unscrupulous friend may take over the land for their personal use. My secrecy benefits the wrong people, depriving my family of a comfortable life that I worked so hard to provide.


The next of kin is not a silver bullet that will determine how to administer your estate in the event of your death or incapacitation. It is advisable to have a will, but if you can’t do so, ensure your next of kin details have the correct information conferring power to make these decisions to the right person. While working at a bank, I witnessed many disputes where the spouse would have to take on blood relatives to access the deceased’s assets. You can imagine the vitriol and the impact on familial relations. Word to the wise, ensure you understand the context before you fill out that form and keep the details up-to-date.