Answer to a question from a reader

How can I stop my relatives from stealing money from my late grandmother's estate?

The short answer

You can lodge a complaint with the Master of the High Court.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

I was raised by my grandmother after my mother died when I was two. When my grandmother fell ill, I resigned from my job to take care of her. When she passed away two months ago, my grandmother's two remaining daughters jumped in and wanted to handle everything. I was concerned when they told me not to say anything about my grandmother's will at the Master of the High Court. They wanted to exclude me.

My husband found out that my two aunts have been claiming my grandmother's money without consulting us and have not handed her will to the Court. There are six beneficiaries listed on the will but only two have been claiming funds. 

The long answer

The documents that are needed when a death is reported to the Master are the following: 

  • Completed death notice (form J294)

  • Original or certified copy of the death certificate

  • Original or certified copy of a marriage certificate (if applicable)

  • All original wills or documents intended as such (if any)

  • Next-of-kin affidavit if the deceased did not leave a valid will (form J192)

  • Completed inventory form (form J243)

  • List of creditors of deceased (if applicable)

  • Nominations by the heirs for the appointment of a Master’s representative in the case of an intestate estate or where no executor has been nominated in the will or the nominated executor declines the appointment.

  • Undertaking and acceptance of Master’s directions (form J155)

  • Declaration confirming that the estate has not already been reported to another Master’s Office or Magistrates Court.

You will see that I have highlighted the ones about the will and nominations for the Executor (or administrator of the estate). The will must be handed in to the Master’s office when the death is reported. Usually, the person or persons who are going to administer the deceased estate will be named in the will. If no one was named in the will, or the person named in the will doesn’t want to accept the responsibility, the heirs (the six beneficiaries, in your case) must nominate a person to be the Executor. (Where an estate is worth less than R250,000, a Representative is appointed, and where it is worth more than R250,000, an Executor is appointed.)

You seem to say that the will has not yet been handed in to the Master’s office, which it should have been when the death was reported. In your grandmother’s will, were your two aunts named as the Executors of the estate? Or if she didn’t name anybody to be the Executor, did you nominate the two aunts to be the Executors? Nominating means all the heirs sign a document agreeing that a particular person or persons are appointed as Executors (or Representatives). 

This is what happens with the money of a deceased estate:

When a person dies, their bank accounts are frozen to prevent theft and fraud. No one may withdraw funds from the deceased’s bank accounts or deal with any of the estate assets without permission from the Master of the High Court. The executor or representative must open a new bank account in the name of “Estate of Late Mrs X” so that your grandmother’s bank account is closed and the bank must transfer the money to the new “Estate Late Mrs X” bank account. The representative/executor will need to provide the bank with the following documents:

  • Death Certificate

  • Deceased’s ID

  • Letter of authority or Letter of Executorship

  • Appointed Representative’s or Executor’s ID

So it seems that your aunts must have been appointed by the Master as Executors or Representatives, or the bank would not allow them to open a new account for your grandmother’s money. 

The Executor/s cannot change the terms of the will. Their legal duty is to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries and distribute the assets of the estate according to the will. 

The Executor/s have to inform creditors of the death in the Government Gazette and also a local newspaper, and give any creditors 30 days to claim against the estate.

Six months after the Executor/s have been appointed, they must give the Master a full Liquidation and Distribution Account. This account is a detailed report on their administration of the estate and must include the following:

  • A section showing all the assets of the deceased;

  • A section showing all the liabilities of the deceased (debts);

  • The cash reconciliation of the estate;

  • The distribution of the assets; and

  • The income and expenditure after the death.

The Executor/s can charge a fee of 3.5% of the gross value of assets in an estate, and 6% on income collected after the death of the deceased. But the law says the fee cannot be less than R350.

If the Master is satisfied with the Liquidation and Distribution Account, he will give permission for it to be advertised in the Government Gazette and the local newspaper again, informing interested parties that they’ve got 21 days to inspect the Account at the Master’s Office or at the local magistrate’s court.

This is when any interested party, like a beneficiary who is not satisfied with the Account, can complain to the Master within the 21 days. The Master will then take it up with the Executor/s. The Executor/s must give the Master an answer about the complaint within 14 days. If the Master thinks the complaint is well-founded, he may tell the Executor/s to change the Account or give them further instructions. If the Account is amended, it must lie open for inspection again for 21 days.

Anybody who doesn’t agree with the directions the Master gave or feels that the Master was wrong not to uphold their objection against the Account of the Executor/s, can go to court within 30 days and ask the court to set aside the Master’s decision. The court will come to its own decision.

Only when the Account has lain open for inspection without any objections being lodged, and the Master has also got a certificate from the Magistrate where the account has lain open for inspection, saying that no objection was lodged with his office, will the Master give the Executor/s permission to distribute the estate as indicated in the account.

The Executor/s have then got two months to distribute the Account, and they must show proof to the Master that they have distributed the assets correctly. If the Master is satisfied with the job the Executor/s have done, the Master will release them from their duties.

If you want to ask further questions, there is a helpline for the Master of the High Court:

Tel: 012 315 1207


You could also ask Legal Aid for assistance here: It is a means-tested government organisation that must help people who can’t afford a lawyer:

Legal Aid Advice Line (Toll-free): 0800 110 110

Legal Aid Ethics Hotline: 0800 153 728

Please-Call-Me number: 079 835 7179

Wishing you the best,

Answered on Oct. 13, 2021, 2:03 p.m.

See more questions and answers

Please note. We are not lawyers or financial advisors. We do our best to make the answers accurate, but we cannot accept any legal liability if there are errors.