As a general rule our law holds us to our agreements and statements, whether we express them verbally, electronically or in written form.
But there are exceptions – some things just have to be in writing and signed before the law will recognise them. One of those exceptions is quite possibly the most important document you will ever sign – your “Last Will and Testament”. Ultimately it’s your final gift to your loved ones – a gift that ensures they are properly provided for when (not “if”) you die.
Don’t neglect this or procrastinate – without a will you have forfeited your right to choose who inherits your assets and who is appointed as executor. And it’s equally vital to validly update or replace your will after a significant “life event” (marriage, birth, death, divorce etc) – we’ll consider below the sad case of an accountant who intended to change his will but just never got around to it.
But first, what must you do for your will to be valid?
To be valid, a South African will must comply with a list of formalities. There are several of them and they require strict compliance, so getting specific legal help is a must. But in general terms your will should be in writing and signed by you in the presence of two “competent” witnesses.
The question arises whether in this age of electronic contracts and signatures an “electronic will” (perhaps in an email, a video, a Social Media post or the like) might suffice. In short, the answer is almost certainly no, it won’t. The Master of the High Court (who accepts your will as valid or not) needs to see a piece of paper and physical signatures. And the same applies to any subsequent amendments to your will.
An escape route
There is however a possible escape route – our Wills Act provides that a Court may order the Master to accept an otherwise invalid will when satisfied that it was intended by the deceased to be his/her last will. That’s a great tool which has often enabled our courts to avoid situations of “injustice through formality”, but there is still absolutely no safe substitute for a properly-executed will.
As this recent High Court judgment of Dryden v Harrison, Western Cape High Court case no. 11912/2017 illustrates all too clearly…
The accountant who emailed his “Final will” to his fiancée
In 2006, a “very meticulous” accountant drew up a written will, properly drawn and formalised. In it he left everything to his then wife, from whom he was divorced in 2011.
In 2014 he became engaged to another woman with whom he had been in a “romantic relationship”.
On 4 January 2016 he emailed his new fiancée, under the subject line “Final will”, recording in part that “This serves as my final will and testament … If I die, all my assets and investments go to [my fiancée] … “My life policies must all go to [my fiancée]”.
Subsequent emails made it clear that both the accountant and his fiancée were aware that there could potentially be disputes regarding the validity of the emailed “will”, and accordingly an “Action” list that the fiancée then sent to the accountant included an action item “Will”. In the end however he never got around to actually making and signing a written will.
When the accountant died on 14 September 2016, the Master appointed as executor the bank nominated in his 2006 will.
The fiancée approached the High Court for an order recognising the 2016 email as the true will, alternatively revoking the part of his 2006 will leaving the estate to his ex-wife. Unsurprisingly, the ex-wife opposed this application.
Firstly, the Court accepted on the facts that the accountant had indeed drafted the email, but it then turned to the second leg of its enquiry – “Whether the deceased intended the disputed Will to be his Last Will and Testament”.
Commenting that “it is not intended for the Court to make a will for the deceased based on what his intentions may have been”, the Court found that it was “improbable that he would have intended the disputed Will to be his Last Will and Testament”, and that – this is the critical part – his email was “nothing more than an email in which he was assuring the applicant that he will make her a beneficiary of his estate”.
The end result – the accountant clearly intended to leave his estate to his fiancée. But he never got around to drawing up a formal written will to that effect, so the 2006 will stands, the ex-wife takes all and the fiancée leaves with nothing.
The bottom line – “intention” is not enough!
Whatever you intend should become of your worldly goods, and no matter how you may have recorded your wishes, the only safe way to ensure that they are honoured is to execute a valid written will.
This is a vital document and there are dire consequences to not getting it 100% right so ask your lawyer for help!