A Glimmer of Hope: The Deceased Estates Process goes digital

At the Tenure Support Centre (TSC), we understand the challenges that individuals face when it comes to dealing with title deed problems. One of the most prevalent issues we encounter is transferring properties from deceased owners to successors in title. The Master’s office plays a crucial role in this process, but it has been plagued by inefficiencies, a lack of transparency, and frustratingly long turnaround times. However, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

On the 10th of October 2023, Justice Minister, Ronald Lamola, launched the Master’s Office Deceased Estate Online Registration System, a development that promises to change the landscape of estate management in South Africa. This digital system aims to make the process more efficient and accessible, a much-needed change from the current slow and manual processes. 

We tracked the elapsed time on 64 document requests submitted by the TSC to the Masters Office since June 2021. These are primarily requests for Letters of Authority and Next-of-Kin affidavits, two crucial documents required to wind up estates. The results are rather disheartening. To date, we have received 25% of the documents requested, with an average elapsed time of 7 to 8 months. More shockingly, 23% of these document requests have been outstanding for more than a year.

A Streamlined Solution: The Deceased Estates Online Registration System

Losing a loved one is devastating. On top of this, the arduous process of winding up the estate has been a further hardship that families have had to endure. The new online estate reporting system launched by the Department of Justice attempts to address this. Masters Office Chief Director Advocate Kanyane Mathibe emphasized the system’s objective in an interview on Newzroom Afrika[1]: “The system is aimed to reduce some of the challenges that we’ve experienced in the Masters Office and that clients have experienced as well”. She pointed out that grieving family members have typically had to visit the Master’s Office in person within 14 days of a loved one’s passing to report an estate with the Master of High Court. The new system eliminates this and allows clients or their representatives to report estates and request documents digitally.

Clients will be able to access the system from anywhere, receiving notifications via SMS and documents by email, reducing the time required to report an estate and eliminating costs required to travel to the Masters Office. According to Advocate Kanyane Mathibe, the current manual process means that clients can generate a letter of executorship or authority within 21 working days. In reality this is seldom achieved, with clients often waiting months for these documents to be issued.  The Masters Office says that with the online system this time frame will be reduced to as little as two days.

The Master’s Office is also taking steps to ensure that elderly individuals, those without access to devices or those who are less tech-savvy and prefer face-to-face interaction are accommodated. Both self-service kiosks and staff-assisted kiosks are being set up to provide support to those who may need it. Initially the system will process requests submitted via the digital platform in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria and will gradually expand to other regions. Users can register on the platform.

A further benefit of the system is that appointments can now be booked online with estate controllers and assistant Masters at the Masters Office. This should unblock deceased estates that get stuck in the system.

While this new online system is a very promising development, our initial testing of the system has been less than encouraging. System glitches have hindered our ability to register on the system and the Department of Home Affairs server has been out of action for much of the first week of the online system going live. Of course, glitches are not uncommon and often plague new system launches. We hope these bugs are resolved speedily and that the system soon performs as envisaged.