Legal victory for heterosexual life partners

In the recent decision of Bwanya v The Master of the High Court and others, the court discussed the legal status of heterosexual life partners, specifically the rights of a surviving life partner to the proceeds of a deceased partner’s estate.

December 3, 2020

The context
The parties in this case had been partners in a permanent heterosexual life partnership for close to two years, with the deceased having asked the applicant for her hand in marriage before his death. Their intention to marry was supported by the deceased’s diary entries, the fact that he provided for the applicant financially and had made plans to buy a car for her, and that the two had planned to start a cleaning business together. Furthermore, the parties lived together, supported one another and their relationship had the characteristics of a marriage.

The precedent
The legal position prior to this judgment was that heterosexual life partners were excluded from inheriting or claiming in terms of the Intestate Succession Act as well as the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act as evidenced in the Volks v Robinson case. This was based on the notion that heterosexual couples had the choice to formalise their union.

The argument
The applicant submitted to the court that there was a contractual duty of support between herself and the deceased and argued that she was being discriminated against based on section 9(3) of the Constitution on the basis of marital status. The section provides that, “the state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

The decision
The court decided that there was no reason why heterosexual life partnerships should be excluded from the Intestate Succession Act or the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act. It held that the applicant and the deceased were in a permanent heterosexual life partnership and questioned the constitutionality of section 1 of the Intestate Succession Act in as far as it excludes partners in permanent heterosexual life partnerships from claiming maintenance in terms of this Act.

Due to the court’s findings, the parties agreed that the applicant would receive benefits bestowed upon spouses in terms of a settlement agreement reached by all parties involved, until the Legislature makes amendments to the above-mentioned Acts.

The outcome of this case is significant for women who have built a life with their partners, and find themselves in a vulnerable position when their partners pass away, as it means they are now able to lay claim to the deceased partner’s estate.

Written by Wessel de Kock

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