SA’s legal practitioners, already disgruntled with alleged corruption at the country’s 15 Master’s Offices, say the disarray in winding up deceased estates – worsened by Covid-19 deaths – risks taking them out of the R30bn sector.

Business Day says the functioning of the offices has been a contentious issue with concerns raised especially over the huge backlogs.

The pandemic has worsened the situation as Covid-19 deaths add to the bottleneck of deceased estates.

Attorney Michael Dansky, from Michael Dansky Attorneys, described the situation as ‘absolute chaos that’s destroying our practices’.

Dansky said the Master’s Offices in Johannesburg had been closed to the public since March 2020.

‘I have about 15 files that I need responses for from the Master’s Offices. In another case I’m acting on behalf of a blind woman. She is the beneficiary of a deceased estate and her property rates account is in arrears of over R200 000,’ said Dansky.

‘The city council has threatened to sue her and the only way she can pay them is if she sells the property but she can’t because there is no letter of executorship, which I have been waiting for since December 2019,’ Dansky said.

Dansky wrote to Master of the High Court in Johannesburg Leonard Pule in early February, asking for access to the building.

He said he has been unable to gain access for nearly a year.

‘As a result of me being unable to get into the building, a complaint has been made against me to the disciplinary committee of the Law Practice Council, because I have not attended to the transfer of a property to an heir, because I have been unable for almost a year to obtain certified copies of documents required to transfer the property,’ he wrote. 

Pule responded the next day (2 February), saying: ‘Access to the office floors or building is currently restricted during this period. The office capacity has been reduced to 50% as officials continue to be on rotation.’

Pule asked Dansky to send details of the urgent matters and ‘clearly indicate what is required in respect of each matter’.

In his response two days later, Dansky raised the estate of a deceased woman who has no living relatives in SA.

‘There is no-one to look after the house which she owned and there is a very serious likelihood that the property will be occupied by squatters and vandalised,’ Dansky wrote, according to  Business Day.  ‘Furthermore, the estate is incurring monthly expenses of about R25 000 and without a letter of executorship the executrix is unable to access funds to pay these debts.’

Black Lawyers Association president Mashudu Kutama, who works in the administration of deceased estates, referred to the overload as ‘huge’.

This delays the winding-up process, and the payment of beneficiaries, ‘more especially if the estate has a number of properties or other assets’. 

Louis van Vuren, CEO of the Fiduciary Institute of Southern Africa said that while turnaround times and service levels ‘are under strain in most Master’s Offices’, this did not apply to all as some offices cope better with their workload than others.

‘The vast majority of complaints from the major centres in the last three years relate to the Master’s Offices in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, while no complaints have been received about the offices in Bloemfontein and Kimberley.’

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