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  • Writer's pictureSpence Law


Any Legal Practitioner or company dealing with the administration of deceased estates will confirm that the process by in practice is not a quick one. This is owing to the fact that any progress we make is subject to timeous co-operation of various institutions, the most essential being the Master of the High Court.

In order to commence with any work in the administration of a deceased estate, a person referred to as the Executor or Master’s Representative must first be appointed by the Master of the High Court through the issuing of either a Letter of Executorship or a Letter of Authority.

Without such Letter of Appointment being issued, one does not have a right or authority whatsoever to contact the banks and close accounts of the deceased person, or to contact investment companies to collect any proceeds of the deceased person’s investments. It is further impossible to ascertain the extent of liabilities of the deceased, including his or her monthly expenses such as insurance, or to even cancel the expenses that should be cancelled on death such as medical aid. Any acts performed without authority are void ab initio and may be set aside by the heirs and the Master of the High Court.

For these reasons, immediately after consulting with a family member of the deceased and gathering all the relevant documentation, we apply to the Master of the High Court for the issuing of the Letter of Appointment. It has always been a challenge to get these letters issued timeously due to the volume of work that the Master’s Office is always faced with.

Prior to Covid19, the Cape Town Master’s Office had a turnaround time of at least 4 weeks to issue the Letters of Appointment. This turnaround was not always adhered to as one would often find out that after weeks of having made the application and submitting all the documentation required for the appointment, either no estate controller has been appointed to deal with the file, or there has been a query and further documentation is required, or be bluntly told that the file is missing and the documentation must be resubmitted. Thereafter, the entire 4 weeks will start afresh.

Even with such difficulties, attorneys were managing as we could gain access to the building of the Master of the High Court and attend to regularly follow up with the respective estate controller until the Letter of Appointment has been issued. However, since the beginning of Covid19 last year, it became almost impossible to obtain any progress on our estate matters, let alone the issuing of Letters of Appointment.

This is mainly owing to the Covid19 measures that regulate access to the building, as we are now required to stand in long queues, together with the public, outside the building. Half of the day is spent waiting, only to be provided with a card, which indicates which floor you are visiting and that card only gains you access to that one particular floor. This also depends on the number of people that will be permitted entry each day, and whether one will be allocated with a card before 13h00, being the closing time to do follow-ups of any kind. A further frustration is finding out when getting to the respective floor, that the estate controller dealing with the matter is working remotely owing to skeleton hours. There is no system in place that advises an attorney which estate controllers are working at the Masters Office at any given time.

On numerous occasions, we have resorted to making phone calls and writing emails, copying in the Assistant Masters, who supervise the estate controllers for each estate. Sadly, this measure too has proven to be less than successful as none of the estate controllers bother to pick up incoming external calls or respond to emails.

To our clients, we wish to assure you that we are doing our best to have the estates of your loved ones wound up as swiftly as possible. However, it is entirely out of our hands to determine how long it will take for each estate to be completed, as we are dependent on the Master of the High Court’s approval and co-operation. We will continue to keep you updated as we always do, and we thank you for your patience.

This article reflects the views of the writer and should not be construed as legal advice, nor relied on by the reader. (C) Spence Attorneys

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