What to do when a loved one dies

If you're the executor of a loved one's estate, there are crucial tasks to handle before involving an attorney when they pass away.

July 10, 2023

When someone we love passes away, the last thing on our minds is dealing with the legal matters that come with it. However, if you’ve been chosen as the executor of their estate, there are some important things you should take care of before involving an attorney.

First, carefully read the will to understand the wishes of the deceased. Then, gather important documents such as bank account records, home loan information, tax numbers, and vehicle registrations. Keep all these documents organized because they will be needed to compile the Liquidation and Distribution account.

Next, notify the relevant institutions mentioned above and any other parties who may have an interest in the estate. Provide them with a certified copy of the death certificate. After that, you need to report the estate at the Master’s Office, where you will be given various forms to complete. You can either handle these forms yourself or work with an attorney of your choice.

At this point, you can decide whether to hand over all the gathered information to the attorney and let them handle the remaining tasks, or continue working alongside the attorney to settle the affairs of your loved one and fulfil their final wishes.

The Legal Lowdown

Losing a loved one is one of the most heartbreaking parts of the human experience and while processing your grief, the last thing one might want to deal with are the legalities if you are named executor of the estate.

So where do you begin? Consulting a legal practitioner who specialises in Estate Administration is always the first prize.  Before you meet with them, here are a few things to consider. First the Estate must be reported to the Master of the High Court in the following ways:

  • Start by going to the website www.doj.gov.za/master or www.justice.gov.za/master and search for the tab: Master: Estates;  where you can access all the different forms required.
  • A completed death notice (Form J294) which you may request at the Master’s office, or download it from the websites above, requires you to complete all personal details of the deceased. This form, along with the death certificate and/ or a certified copy of the death certificate, as well as the original will, if there is a will, must be submitted to the Master’s office.
  • It would be advisable to compile a list with an estimate of the value of the assets that belonged to the deceased at the date of death.
  • This entire process of compiling the above documents is known as reporting the estate to the Master of the High Court, and must be done by hand within 14 days of the date of death, by any person having control or possession of any property or documents, such as the original will or a document they believe was intended to be the will.
  • The Master may request additional documents to be handed in when reporting the estate, which would be advised to keep on hand to avoid further delays.  These include:
  1. The nominated executor/s along with certified copies of their ID/s,
  2. Next of Kin’s Affidavit, along with Marriage Certificate and Antenuptial Contract (if applicable) or Divorce Order,
  3. Covering letter to the Master that accompanies the reporting of the Estate.  This is usually completed by an attorney who will be assisting you in your role as executor.

When all the above is submitted, the Letters of Executorship will be issued by the Master of the High Court, which essentially shows all interested parties that you have been given authority to represent the Estate, distribute and dissolve it. While one waits for the Letter of Executorship to be issued, it would be advisable to start collecting all documents (title deeds, home loan accounts, rates accounts, motor vehicle registrations, bank accounts etc) that belonged to the deceased and filing them for purposes of the distribution.

Next up is to contact all of the deceased’s creditors, debtors, bankers, SARS, short term and long term insurances, mortgagees and furnish them with a copy of the certified death certificate. Most of these institutions will formally respond only once furnished with a Letter of Executorship, so it is advisable to initiate communication with the assistance of a legal practitioner.  If you cannot afford one, the Master will refer you to Legal Aid, until such a letter is received.

Once the Letter of Executorship is issued, the attorney assisting you can suggest valuators to evaluate all assets and liabilities, that will be liquidated and distributed in the form of a Liquidation and Distribution account.  This will determine if the estate is solvent for purposes of distributing its assets, according to the wishes of the deceased.

As this is a very technical step, although being nominated as executor, it is advisable to leave this part to an attorney or accountant, to leave no room for error. At this point, one can finally concentrate on the grieving process as you will have professional help to facilitate and realise your loved one’s last wishes.


https://www.justice.gov.za/master/deceased.html (accessed 15 June 2023 12:36pm).

https://www.kiplinger.com/article/retirement/t021-c032-s014-how-to-perform-the-duties-of-executor-of-an-estate.html (accessed 15 June 2023 2:45pm).

Corbett Hofmeyer Kahn: The Law of Succession in South Africa, 2nd Edition.

Written by Deonalin Pongolani

Moderated and approved by Clive Smith

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