“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” (Shakespeare)
We aren’t comfortable thinking about our mortality, but death comes to all of us and it is our loved ones who will suffer if we don’t make plans to look after them whilst we still can.
First prize here will always be a full estate planning exercise, but at the very least put a will in place. There is no other way of ensuring that your loved ones’ interests are protected, that they inherit what you want them to inherit, and that your estate is wound up by an executor you trust to act with integrity and professionalism.
Make sure that your will is a proper and valid one, professionally drawn in accordance with all the required legal formalities.
As we shall see below, our courts have only a limited ability to help out when requirements aren’t fully complied with, and that can be disastrous for your dependants.
A dying mother’s instruction to draw a will – too little, too late
A tragic High Court case from 2021 illustrates the dangers of delay –
- Dying of terminal cancer, a mother filled out a bank form headed “Will Application / Aansoek om testament”. In it she gave the bank instructions to draw her will.
- Her intentions were laid out clearly in the document – to leave everything to her minor child.
- Unfortunately she died the next day, before her will was drawn and signed. Her husband claimed that she had accordingly died “intestate” (without a valid will) leaving him to inherit a full “child’s share” with a minimum of R250,000. As their marriage was in community of property, the husband was already a 50% owner of all the marital assets, and this estate not being a large one the practical effect appears to be that he would likely inherit everything, and the child would get nothing.
- A group of relatives, trying to give effect to the mother’s wishes and to protect the child’s interests, asked the High Court to accept the bank’s instruction document as a valid will in terms of a section in the Wills Act which provides that: “If a court is satisfied that a document or the amendment of a document drafted or executed by a person who has died since the drafting or execution thereof, was intended to be his will or an amendment of his will, the court shall order the Master to accept that document, or that document as amended, for the purposes of the Administration of Estates Act, 1965 (Act 66 of 1965), as a will, although it does not comply with all the formalities for the execution or amendment of wills referred to in subsection (1).” (Emphasis supplied).
A cruel twist of fate
There was no doubt here that the bank form correctly set out the mother’s wishes. But there was a fatal problem – as the Court put it “…the content of the document in issue and the circumstances surrounding its execution indicate clearly that the deceased did not intend it to be anything other than a drafting instruction. There is nothing to support the contention that the deceased intended the document to be her will; everything points to the contrary.”
The form could therefore not be accepted as a valid will, and the child is left with little or nothing other than the Court’s expressed hope that the husband would if practicable “honour his late wife’s declared wishes regardless of the fact that due to a cruel twist of fate [the child] did not end up being entrenched in a will as she had intended.”
Without a doubt the Court would have come to the child’s assistance if it could have, but the clear wording of the Wills Act left it unable to do so.
Make a will – now!
None of us knows when Death will come knocking at our door. If you don’t already have a valid, updated will in place, make sure that “Make a Will” or “Update my Will” is at the very top of your priority list.
Your will could well be the most important document you ever sign, so getting professional advice and assistance is an easy decision here.