Managing the administration of a deceased relative’s estate

The Administration of Estates Act, 1965, determines what must happen with an estate after a person’s death, to ensure that the process is properly managed. This is particularly important if it is a large estate, the assets are varied and there are potential family disputes.

Finding the Will

The first thing to do is to find the Will. If the Will cannot be found among the papers of the deceased, places to call include the deceased’s life insurance company, bank or attorney.

Who is the executor?

An executor is the person appointed to handle the process of settling the estate. The executor will either be nominated in the Will or nominated by the beneficiaries, if there is no nomination in the Will or no Will can be found. The executor is appointed by the Master of the High Court after, inter alia, taking such nominations into consideration. The Master will ultimately decide who will be the executor. If the chosen executor is unfamiliar with the legal procedure, he or she can approach an attorney for help. Once the executor has been determined, the Master will issue a “Letter of Executorship”, which gives the authority to administer the estate.

What must the executor do?

The executor’s responsibilities include:

  • arranging for valuation of the assets of the estate.
  • contacting and dealing with all the beneficiaries.
  • arranging provisional payments for the family’s immediate needs.
  • opening a bank account for the estate and depositing the estates money in it.
  • paying all the necessary estate duties.

The executor needs the Letter of Executorship to carry out these duties.

Eventually, the executor will prepare a liquidation and distribution account, setting out all assets, and debts, and how the assets will be distributed to beneficiaries.  This account must be delivered to the Master, who will check that the executor’s actions reflect the ill of the deceased and that all legal requirements have been fulfilled.

Important things to keep in mind

Whenever any person dies inside or outside the Republic of South Africa leaving any property or a Will, then the death of such a person must be reported to the Master of the High Court by completing a prescribed Death Notice form.


The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development: “Reporting the estate of the deceased”. Accessed from: on 11/05/2016.

Administration of Estates Act 66 of 1965. Accessed from: on 11/05/2016.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

The Living Will

Most people are familiar with a will or testament and understand the importance of having this legal declaration drafted, by which the testator nominates an executor to manage his or her estate and provide for the distribution of his or her property to beneficiaries when he or she dies.

But how many people have considered drafting a living will?

A living will does not deal with assets, heirs and beneficiaries, but with the philosophy of death and dying, and should be considered carefully and drafted by a professional.

A living will is a legal document expressing a person’s wishes regarding life-prolonging medical treatment when that person can no longer voice his or her wishes. It is also referred to as an advance medical directive.

A typical clause in a living will would read as follows:

If the time comes when I can no longer take part in decisions for my own future, let this declaration stand as my directive.

If I suffer from physical illness or impairment expected to cause me severe distress, rendering me incapable of rational existence, from which there is no reasonable prospect of recovery, I withhold my consent to be kept alive by artificial means and do not give my consent to any form of tube-feeding when I am dying; and I request that I receive whatever quantity of drugs and intravenous fluids as may be required to keep me comfortable and free from pain even if the moment of death is hastened. I withhold my consent to any attempt at resuscitation, should my heart and breathing stop and my prognosis is hopeless.

The living will tells the doctor and family that the patient does not consent to being kept alive artificially. It speaks for the patient at a time when the patient may be unable to communicate.

South African law and most religions accepts the validity of the living will, but none of the main religions accept euthanasia.

Euthanasia is against the law. Sean Davison, the respected UWC professor who helped his 85-year-old terminally ill mother, Patricia Ferguson, die in New Zealand by preparing a lethal dose of morphine, was arrested in New Zealand in September 2010 on an attempted murder charge.

It is important to have a properly drafted, legal living will to avoid far reaching and traumatic consequences for the loved ones that stay behind.

Many lawyers who practice in the area of estate planning include a living will and a health care power of attorney in their package of estate planning documents.

The advantages of a living will

  1. The directives respect the patient’s human rights, and in particular his or her right to reject medical treatment.
  2. It encourages full discussion about end-of-life decisions.
  3. It also means that the medical staff and caregivers are aware of the patient’s wishes, and knowing what the patient wants means that doctors are more likely to give appropriate treatment.
  4. It will avoid the situation where the patient’s family and friends have to take the difficult decisions.

Disadvantages of a living will

  1. Drafting this document can be very depressing.
  2. The person may still be healthy and not in a position to actually imagine that he or she could ever be in the position where they would voluntarily give up living.
  3. When the time comes to act on the living will the patient might have changed his or her mind and it is then often difficult to amend the document.

Important points to consider

  1. The living will should not be incorporated or attached to the last will and testament, which is only acted upon after death.
  2. A living will does not become effective unless the patient becomes incapacitated; until then the patient will be able to choose appropriate treatment.
  3. A certificate by the patient’s doctor and another independent doctor certifying that the patient is either suffering from a terminal illness or permanently unconscious, is required before the living will becomes effective. In the case of a heart attack, the living will does not take effect. A living will is only executed when ultimate recovery is hopeless.
  4. You have to notify your doctor and family of your living will and preferably have copies of the document available for the doctor, hospital and family.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)