Social distancing requirements hinder legal execution of wills. Picture: 123RF
Social distancing requirements hinder legal execution of wills. Picture: 123RF

Estate planning industry body Fisa has made an urgent application to the department of justice to have the drafting and execution of wills declared an essential service during the lockdown.

Not only will a delay in the administration process hit already cash-strapped, grieving families hard, but the impact on the economy is substantial as billions of rand are tied up in estates under administration.

Louis van Vuren, CEO of the Fiduciary Institute of Southern Africa (Fisa) warns that the reduced staffing at the Master’s Offices around the country due to the lockdown will greatly worsen the already existing backlog on estate administration in some Master’s Offices.

He says Fisa receives daily queries from its lawyers and other fiduciary professionals on how they can execute wills in a time of lockdown. By law, a will needs to be signed by the testator and two witnesses in the presence of the testator. The witnesses may not be anyone who stands to benefit from the will.

“Given the lockdown’s social distancing requirements, it is not possible to execute a will legally. This urgently needs to be declared an essential service and we are waiting for feedback from the authorities,” he says.

Fisa made its submission to the acting chief master on April 6 and received an undertaking that the matter would be taken up with the justice department, but Fisa has yet to receive any feedback.

Van Vuren says South Africans could go to a police station and ask those on duty to witness their will, but this could put further pressure on an already strained SAPS.

He says the deceased person’s bank accounts are frozen after death, which can lead to spouses and family members who have lost a loved one facing a severe cash shortage.

Van Vuren says the executor of the deceased estate cannot access any funds in bank accounts until appointed by the master of the high court and issued with letters of executorship.

In addition, deceased estate advertisements in the government gazette and in most newspapers have also been stopped. “As these advertisements and the time periods attached to them are legal requirements in the estate administration process, this will mean further delays in deceased estates already under administration,” he says.

“This situation can be dealt with without a substantial increase in physical contact between people, if more Master’s Office services are declared essential and smart solutions implemented.”