Tag Archives: Estate

Managing disputes over a deceased relative’s estate

A2_bIf someone leaves a sizeable estate behind, it may cause conflict among the possible heirs. The help of an attorney, when settling an estate after a death, can avoid unnecessary troubles.

The Administration of Estates Act, 1965, determines what must happen with an estate after a person’s death. There are certain steps that should be taken to ensure the process is legal. However, if the estate is worth a lot of money or the deceased has children, then it is a good idea to seek the assistance of an attorney, as family disputes and debts of the deceased can be confusing. In order to this an executor will be appointed to act on behalf of the estate.

Finding the will of a deceased relative

If the deceased person left a will the first thing to do is find it. If they did not tell you beforehand where their will was, you can try calling the probate court in their district or the office of the master of the High Court to check if they have a copy of the will. Other places to call would be the deceased’s life insurance company, bank or lawyer. Otherwise, they might have left a copy of it somewhere secure in their home.

Who is the executor?

An executor is the person appointed to handle the process of settling the estate. The executor will either be mentioned in the will of the deceased or appointed by the master of the High Court. The master will ultimately decide who will take the role of executor. If the chosen executor doesn’t know how to handle the estate or is unfamiliar with the legal procedure, he or she can go to a lawyer for help. Once the executor has been chosen, the master will give them “Letters of Executorship”, which will give only them the authority to handle the estate.

What does the executor need to do?

The executor has several responsibilities such as arranging the valuation of the estate’s property and assets. They will also be responsible for contacting and dealing with all the beneficiaries.

Some other responsibilities of the executor include:

  • 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.

It’s important that any person who wants to act on behalf of the deceased person’s estate have the Letters of Executorship. If not, their actions would be considered illegal. This also applies to the spouse of the deceased person. This eliminates the possibility of several different family members trying to influence the estate’s dealings. The executor will also decide how the assets will be divided between the heirs and if any or all assets need to be sold. If a will is in place the executor will base his/her decisions on it.

Eventually, the executor will prepare a liquidation and distribution account. This would include what will they intend to do with all the assets left after expenses. This account would be delivered to the master, who will check to see if the executor’s actions reflect the will of the deceased and that all legal requirements have been fulfilled.

Important things to keep in mind?

The master of the High Court should be notified of the deceased person’s estate not later than 14 days after the death. According to the Department of Justice a death of anyone who owned property in South Africa must be reported to the master, whether or not they died in the country.

All estates that exceed R50 000 should be reported to the master of the High Court directly because magistrate’s offices have limited jurisdiction. If reported to the magistrate’s office, estates would usually be referred to the master.


The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. 2012. “Reporting the estate of the deceased”. Accessed from: http://www.justice.gov.za/services/report-estate.html/ on 11/05/2016.

Administration of Estates Act 66 of 1965. Accessed from: http://www.justice.gov.za/ 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)

Freedom of testation and maintenance claims

A2_bIs a testator entitled to disinherit a child and if so, will the child have a claim for maintenance against the estate?

Freedom of testation is the liberty of a testator to choose how to bequeath his/her estate, and govern how his/her property is transmitted after his/her death. The law of succession then, is at least in part concerned with the preservation of a testator’s wishes, even if it additionally serves a social function related to the family and economic structures of society. In principle South Africa propagates total freedom of testation.

The general approach in South African law is that agreements or clauses which attempt to limit freedom of testation are not enforceable. Further, once the testator’s wishes have been ascertained, a court is ordinarily bound to give effect to these wishes. Our baseline is allowing for much liberty and autonomy in the law of succession.

However, freedom of testation has never been unfettered. Both the common law and statutes, such as the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act 27 of 1990, impose restrictions on the testator. Bequests which are manifestly illegal or contra bonos mores (against good morals) will be regarded as invalid. Further, spouses and children may be disinherited in terms of the will but they may still have a legitimate claim for maintenance against a testator’s estate which cannot be disregarded.

There is furthermore a presumption against disinheritance, and courts will usually prefer a softer construction of a testator’s will in this respect. This is based on an assumption that a parent is not likely to disinherit a child. However, it is important to note that if it is explicit or clear in a testator’s will that a child is disinherited, then this will not constitute an impermissible exercise of freedom of testation; rather, a testator is given the liberty to lawfully do so.

South Africa gives fairly broad freedom to testators. Testators can generally dispose of their estates as they desire, subject only to certain restrictions mentioned above. Further, testators are not required to give reasons for their decisions in this regard, and are not accountable to their families for testamentary choices.

Nonetheless, the parental duty to maintain children will pass to the estate upon death, as confirmed in Carelse v Estate De Vries (1906) 23 SC 532. The minor child’s claim for maintenance is endorsed as settled law and a common law restriction on freedom of testation.

It should be noted that the child’s claim for maintenance and education is not to be confused with a legitimate portion as it does not entitle a minor to a set portion of the estate or, put differently, does not presumptively limit the testator’s ability to divide her estate as she or he desires. As such a testator could potentially disinherit a child without this impacting the common law claim the child will have against the estate.

Currently, South African law also provides for the surviving spouse to exercise a claim for maintenance against the deceased’s estate. The parental (and spousal) duty then does not merely extinguish upon death. The provision of maintenance for children gives effect to children’s rights as provided for by the Constitution, and affording this maintenance claim to protect dependants is wholly justifiable. This does not however entail that children should be entitled to a legitimate portion or forced heirship generally, as this would constitute an overly extensive constriction on freedom of testation.

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