Challenges at the Master of the High Court for deceased estates

Brenton Ellis | 28 September 2023

Brenton Ellis is a member of the Fiduciary Institute of South Africa (FISA) and a director of Servo Fiduciary Services.


A straightforward deceased estate should take six to eight months to wind up from when it is reported to the Master of the High Court, but this turnaround time is currently highly unlikely.

This situation needs to be corrected urgently to ensure beneficiaries enjoy financial security more speedily and funds and assets are released into the economy.

Service levels vary at the different Master of the High Court Offices across South Africa’s nine provinces.  Service levels depend on the staff complement, workload and internal operations at each office, but all professionals (fiduciaries) dealing with estates of more than R250 000 are experiencing delays.

Appointing an executor

No deceased estate can be administered before the Master has appointed an executor and issued a Letter of Executorship. Reporting an estate to the Master’s office should be straightforward, but there is no uniformity on the information and documents required at the various offices, making it extremely challenging.

This is exacerbated when the Master requires documents, such as a copy of a divorce agreement or the death certificate of a predeceased spouse, that is not readily available.

In some cases, the death certificate records the deceased’s marital status incorrectly and an amended death certificate must then be obtained from the Department of Home Affairs, which can be very time-consuming.

Many second-marriage spouses and/or children do not have access to the divorce orders and/or death certificates and it can take weeks, if not months, to obtain them.

Proper estate planning and planning for death can help you avoid these delays. With the right documents, getting a Letter of Executorship can be expedited.

Further interaction with the Master’s Office

After executors have been appointed, they have to interact with the Master numerous times during the administration of the estate. The Master is involved in the following steps:

  • Consent to the sale of any fixed property from a deceased estate.

  • Approval of the Liquidation & Distribution Account (L&D account). This account sets out the assets and debts or liabilities in the estate, any income, expenses and taxes after death, and the distribution of the assets.

  • Confirmation that the L&D Account is free from objection after the executor has answered any queries.

  • Considering and approving any Redistribution Agreement (for heirs to redistribute assets).

  • Issuing Letters of Authority in cases where testamentary trusts are created in the will.

  • Issuing of a Filing Notice, once the estate is finalized.

  • Acceptance of funds for the Guardians Fund, if applicable.

Problems at the Master's Offices

For an estate to be wound up in a reasonable time, therefore, the Master’s Office needs to be functional.

Members of the Fiduciary Institute of Southern Africa (FISA) have reported the following challenges at different Master’s Offices:

  • Loadshedding, particularly in Johannesburg, one of the biggest and busiest Master’s Offices which has no backup power. 

  • Long queues. Some members of the public and practitioners travel long distances, only to be turned away because of the queues.

  • Staff shortages. Cape Town, for example, currently has a 35% vacancy rate for estate controllers.

  • Systems to manage cases and link to the Department of Home Affairs are often down and printing and scanning facilities are often offline.

  • Lack of bandwidth in Master’s Offices, resulting in the scanning of some new estates taking hours.

  • A lack of functioning hardware such as copiers and scanners.

  • After queries about new estates are addressed, it can take six to 10 weeks to get Letters of Executorship issued. This is mainly due to excessive workloads and poor filing systems.

  • Estate files and documents get lost or misplaced and executors must provide duplicate files, sometimes numerous times.

  • Registration of immovable property, such as house or farm, in an estate requires the Master’s consent.

  • A copy of the last valid will certified by the Master is required to transfer fixed property to an heir or heirs who agree to redistribute the assets.

Other delays

Not all the delays in winding up a deceased estate can be attributed to the Master’s Offices. Other role players also add to the delays.

  • Banks: The banks’ Financial Intelligence Centre Act (FICA) processes, fraud checking and slow turnaround times in attending to the deceased’s bank accounts can cause delays. Some bank personnel still work from home making it difficult to expedite matters through call centres. Some banks take several months to close accounts.

  • The South African Revenue Service (SARS): Efiling has made things easier, but issues the SARS has with the deceased’s last tax return, the estate’s tax return and estate duty assessments can cause delays.

  • The Post Office: The Post Office is not functional, so documents are couriered, or hand delivered to and from the Master, the banks and insurance companies. Some Master’s Offices still reply to correspondence via the postal service which can take months.

The administration of a deceased estate is a sound process designed to protect the rights of the deceased, heirs, beneficiaries, creditors and tax collection by the government. It can run smoothly if all role players do their best. The executor cannot do this alone and has to rely on all the other parties to contribute to the process in an efficient way.