Answer to a question from a reader

Can I be compensated for the money I spent on municipal services arrears of my late grandparents' house?

The short answer

If you don't buy the house, your chances of recovering the money aren't very good.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

I have been living in my late grandparents' house for the past nine years. The house was in a terrible state, so I spent about R10,000 for renovations. 

My uncle lived in the house until he passed away. I only found out recently that he never paid for municipal services and levies, and the account was in arrears by over R19,000. I want to buy the house. According to the certificate I obtained from the municipality, the house is only worth R53,000.

Only two of my grandparents' eight children are still alive. Three of my cousins want to sell the house and be compensated for their share. My other cousins say that they don't want anything and that the money should be divided between my grandparents' two surviving children. My grandparents did not leave a will and no one is willing to compensate me for the money I spent on the house. I went to a lawyer and she said that it would be a long, lengthy process. 

One of my cousins has been trying to evict me from the house for years. Can they do that?

The long answer

I’m afraid that I don’t think that your chances of recovering the money you spent on the arrears to get the certificate are very good if you decide not to buy the house. As the law stands, a person who buys a house can only have it transferred into their name by the Registrar of Deeds after a certificate from the municipality saying that all arrears have been paid for two years before the date of issue of the certificate is submitted. It is the owner who is liable to pay for the certificate.

The attorney Simon Dippenaar advises that if you can’t settle a dispute about payment without going to court, you can go to the Small Claims Court if the debt is less than R20,000. You don’t need a lawyer in the Small Claims Court, as the Clerk of the Court will tell you what you should do. If the amount is higher than R20,000, or your claim doesn’t succeed in the Small Claims Court, you would need to go to court, which, as your lawyer said, would probably take a long time and be very costly without any guarantee that you would succeed.

As your grandparents died without a will and there are two surviving children out of the original eight, this is the way the Intestate Succession would work: the estate would be divided between the two surviving children and the children of the predeceased children. If your parent is one of the two surviving children, you would not be an heir. If your parent is one of the predeceased children, you would be entitled to a child’s share, along with your cousins if they are children of your grandparents’ predeceased children. If one of your grandparents’ predeceased children had more than one child, that predeceased child’s share would be divided between as many living children as the predeceased child had. 

The house can only be sold with the permission of all the heirs. The person that the family chooses to have the Letter of Authority, who winds up the estate and pays any outstanding creditors, must see to it that all the heirs agree to the sale before it can go ahead. It may be that the person who has the Letter of Authority can call a meeting where the question of your payment of the municipal arrears can be discussed with all the family, including the three cousins who wish to be compensated. It may be possible in such a family meeting that the three cousins may agree, in the interests of fairness, that you should be compensated for what you have already paid to the extent possible for them. 

If they do not agree, I don’t think you will have any other option but to go to court, and that may well not be successful as your cousins can say that you paid the arrears of your own free will and that nothing compels them to pay you back.

Your cousin does not have the right to evict you. No one in South Africa can be evicted without a court order, and the court would have to be satisfied that it would be right and just to evict you. You would have the right to attend the court hearing and put your side of the story to the court. Given that you have lived there for nine years and have made improvements and paid the municipal arrears, it is most unlikely that a court would find it right and just to evict you.  

Wishing you the best,

Answered on Dec. 3, 2021, 4:47 p.m.

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