A husband died leaving his estate to his wife who had survived him.  His estate included an interest in Maori land, although this was not specifically addressed in the Will because the deceased had not discussed it with his legal advisor when making the Will (and his legal advisor did not ask about ownership of any Maori land). 

The Maori land had been of significance to the deceased and his wife during their relationship, so she was devastated to discover that she could not inherit it because she was not within the class of people legally entitled to inherit Maori land under the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993. 

As the couple had no children, the deceased’s family had to take the matter to the Maori Land Court to resolve who could inherit the interest in Maori land. 

Leaving Maori Land by Will

The Act sets out specifically who can inherit Maori land.  An owner of Maori land can leave their interest in the land to any of the following:

  1. Their children and remoter issue (i.e. subsequent descendants such as grand-children);
  2. Any other person who would be entitled to succeed if the will-maker died intestate (as discussed further below);
  3. Any other persons who are related to the will-maker by blood and are members of a hapū associated with the land;
  4. Other owners of the land who are members of a hapū associated with the land;
  5. Whāngai of the will-maker; and
  6. Trustees of the persons referred to above.

If a Will attempts to leave Maori land to someone who is outside of the above categories, then that gift will be considered void, and of no legal effect.  Instead the Maori land will pass to whoever would be entitled to succeed if the will-maker died intestate (discussed further below). 

Life Interest for Spouse or Partner in a Will

A will-maker may wish to make provision for their spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner in relation to their Maori land. 

To do so they can leave them a life interest in the Maori land, which will allow them to receive any rentals or payments made from the land and take part in ownership discussions about the land. 

The life interest will expire if the interest-holder dies, remarries, or enters into another civil union or de facto relationship, or gives up the life interest.  In that event the land will revert back to the beneficiaries under the Will, if they fit within the categories set out above.

Succession on Intestacy

If a person dies intestate, i.e. without leaving a valid Will, the Act sets out a priority succession for the Maori land interest.

  1. Children of the deceased living at his or her death (or the children of any child of the deceased who died before the deceased) are entitled to equal shares;
  2. Where the deceased leaves no children then the deceased’s brothers and sisters (or the children of any brother or sister who died before the deceased) are entitled to equal shares; or
  3. Where the deceased has no children or brothers and sisters, then the persons entitled to succeed will be the living children of the person nearest in the chain of title to the deceased who has children living at the time of the deceased’s death, in equal shares if more than one.

No Living Descendants

If a person dies intestate with no living descendants, then the following people are entitled to inherit their Maori land:

  1. Their brothers and/or sisters;
  2. The parent from whom they received the Maori land, if they have no brothers or sisters, or those brothers and sisters have no descendants;
  3. The brothers and/or sisters of the parent from whom they received the Maori land, if their parent is deceased;
  4. The grandparent from whom they received the Maori land, if their parent, uncle/s and aunt/s are deceased; or
  5. The closest living descendant who is related by blood to the grandparent from whom they received the Maori land.

Maori land does not revert to the Crown if there are no clear beneficiaries.  Instead, The Maori Land Court will determine who has the closest whakapapa connection to the deceased, and that person will inherit the Maori land. 

Life Interest for Spouse or Partner on Intestacy

The surviving spouse or civil union partner of a Maori land owner who dies intestate is entitled as of right to a life interest in the land. 

That life interest is not available if a separation order or separation agreement was in place at the time of the deceased’s death.  It will expire when the spouse or partner dies, remarries, or enters into a civil union or de facto relationship, or surrenders the life interest.  

It is worth noting that although a de facto partner is entitled to receive a life interest in Maori land by Will, they are not entitled to one as of right if the land owner dies intestate. 

Conclusion

Owners of Maori land should have an up-to-date Will that addresses their Maori land in accordance with the Act. 

Given the strongly familial nature of Maori land ownership, it is also worthwhile for Maori land owners to talk with their whanau about what should happen in the event of their death.  Wills should be reviewed at least every five years, and any time a will-maker’s circumstances change. 




Louisa Gommans
Senior Solicitor
Wellington