EXPLAINER | 5 Tips to manage a deceased relative's estate

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Last Will and Testament document with quill pen and handwriting
Last Will and Testament document with quill pen and handwriting

When a loved one dies, it's already difficult. Having to figure out how to manage their estate as well can feel overwhelming, writes Tumi Morwalle.

It’s not easy when a loved one passes away and having to navigate the complexities of managing their estate makes it even harder.

Deceased estates are managed by an appointed executor with the Master of the High Court.

The admin associated with death can be overwhelming, especially when you hear the horror stories of how long this can take and those that have struggled to sort out.

What is a deceased estate?

A deceased estate refers to everything that the deceased owned or owes at the time of their death. It therefore includes their money, physical possessions, property, and even intangible or digital assets. It also includes liabilities or what they owe anyone.

Here are our tips to help you manage the process.

Tip 1: Contact your or the deceased’s financial planner

If you have or the deceased had a financial planner, they can help you with navigating the process and are likely to have the deceased’s valid will on record, which you will need.

What happens if the person didn’t have a will?

If the deceased did not have a will, their estate will be distributed in terms of the Intestate Succession Act, also known as the rules of intestate succession.

This means that the person’s living relatives will receive the estate. This would be a spouse or children. If the person didn’t have any living relatives such as a spouse, children or extended family, and if they don’t have any blood relatives, it will remain with the Master for 30 years and then go to the state.

You can therefore understand why it so important to have a will in place to ensure that your loved ones are provided for in the way that you want, and so that the administration of the estate is easier and faster to do.

Tip 2: Have a death certificate

In order to get the process going you will need the deceased’s death certificate and their valid ID. If your loved one passed away in hospital, the medical practitioner will complete some forms and then the  funeral parlour will arrange the next part of the process for you.

They will also take the forms and the ID to the Department of Home Affairs, which will issue an official death certificate. You will need this to report the death to the Master of the High Court within 14 days to issue a letter of executorship.

They will also provide verified copied of the death certificate as you will need this for anybody that you are dealing with related to the deceased’s banking, any funeral cover, life policies and other admin.

Tip 3: Check if the deceased had funeral cover and any life policies

If the deceased had funeral cover or life policies, it would take some of the financial burden off your shoulders because these are not included in the estate and will pay the named beneficiaries as soon as you have met their process requirements.

You need to get in touch with whoever issued the funeral cover or policies, and check what they need to be able to pay this out.

It is normally the death certificate, proof of the funeral cover or policy details and paperwork to prove who you or any of the beneficiaries are.  

Tip 4: Report the death to the Master of the High Court, who will appoint an executor of the estate.

The death needs to be reported to the Master of the High Court within 14 days after the death. The Master of the High Court will also formally appoint an executor (according to the deceased’s will) to fulfil the following functions:

Take control of the assets of the estate.

  • Protect and preserve the assets.
  • Identify the beneficiaries of the estate.
  • Make sure the estate administration complies with all legal requirements.
  • Pay the debts and the administration expenses of the estate.
  • Deal with the deceased’s final income tax return.
  • Distribute the balance of the assets in the estate to the beneficiaries.

If the deceased had business interests, the executor will secure disposal of the business as a going concern, i.e. either handing control over to heirs or finding a suitable buyer.

An executor's function is purely administrative and governed by law, and the executor must be unbiased and cannot take sides.

Who is appointed as an executor?

For estates valued at more than R250 000: If an executor is not specified in the will of the deceased, the Master will appoint one on the deceased’s behalf. The family may also nominate an executor if there is no will. The Master will issue a letter of executorship to the executor.

For estates valued at less than R250 000: The Master will appoint a Master’s representative. The Master will issue a letter of authority to the Master’s representative.

Tip 5: Appoint a professional executor

Managing an estate is a very complex and admin intense process that takes time, even if the deceased has a simple estate. A professional executor will:

1. Report the death.

2. Submit all the necessary paperwork to the Master.

Our estate practitioner will submit the necessary documents to the Master of the High Court (Master). The Master will then issue letters of executorship that authorise us to administer the estate. This can take six to eight weeks, but it can take longer. The executor will then have the necessary authority to start the administration of the estate and to take custody of the estate property and records.

3. Discuss, help you complete and submit the estate reporting documents.

Help you with all the documents and explain the process and manage this.

Tip 5: Be patient and expect lots of admin before the estate can be finalised

Each estate is different and it is difficult to commit to specific timeframes. It can take anything from 18-24 months, or longer, depending on the complexity and liquidity of the estate. 

Tumi Morwalle is National Head of Wills and Estates at Nedbank Private Wealth. Views are her own. 

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