Answer to a question from a reader

What can I do to make the Master's Office issue my Letter of Authority

The short answer

You'll probably need a lawyer's help.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

I have been waiting five years for the Master's Office to issue my Letter of Authority so that I can wind up my late son's estate. My son did not leave a will, only an Old Mutual policy for which I'm the only beneficiary. I am a pensioner and can't go all the way from Rustenburg to Polokwane to resolve this. 

The long answer

It is truly shocking that it has been five years that you have been waiting for the letter of authority which would allow you to finalise your late son’s estate. As you know from the GroundUp article by Ella Morrison on 17 October 2023, the Master’s offices are taking months and even years, since the Covid lockdown, to issue letters of authority that should take two weeks. 

Lawyers have complained repeatedly to the Minister of Justice, Ronald Lamola, that the offices of the Master are completely disorganised – files are lost, the filing system is a mess, and they suspected widespread fraud, corruption and misconduct among the staff. 

They said that the system needed to be digitised efficiently so that people should not have to make repeated journeys to the court in person to finalise matters, but the digitising process that the Master’s Office took on has been patchy, and people still have to go in person to the Master’s Office.

The lawyers also offered to assist the Master’s offices for an agreed amount of time with processing the backlogs, but this offer, strangely, was not accepted. One lawyer thought it might be because staff at the Master’s offices got paid overtime to deal with backlogs.

In October 2023, the Minister of Justice launched the new Deceased Estates Portal that people can use to register deceased estates themselves through this link: dojonline.justice.gov.za. This is the online address of the public-access site: https://icmsweb.justice.gov.za/mastersinformation.

The system is live at the Master of the High Court offices in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria and Thohoyandou. But again, lawyers say that in Gauteng the new system is not working well; it is always offline, and the staff are not properly trained to use the system, so that documents can’t be accessed, and in any case, staff are still needed to process and check every document. There is an alarming staff shortage in the Master’s Office, which delays things further.

After the many complaints about corruption, fraud and misconduct, the President and Justice Minister authorised the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to launch an investigation in 2021 into the Master’s Office. The SIU raided and temporarily shut down all 15 of the Master’s offices in the country. 

Ella Morrison for GroundUp reported on 20 November 2023 that the Justice Department had announced a rescue plan for the Master’s Office which aims “to fix backlogs, improve digitisation, increase capacity, ensure standardisation and transparency, and to stop corruption in offices across the country”.  

But the Justice Department has said that it will not be releasing this plan to the public. This is unfortunate, as few people trust in the ability of the Master’s offices to carry out their job as they should.

Morrison quotes Goga, a lawyer from the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), saying that after a letter of authority is issued, there is no supervision by the Master and “no follow-ups to see that beneficiaries have received what they are legally entitled to”. 

So, having gone through all this background to your particular problem, what can you do, as a pensioner who lives in Rustenburg, when the Master’s Office in Pietersburg (Polokwane) is the office that has held up your letter of authority for five years?

Perhaps the best thing to do is to contact ProBono.Org. This is an organisation that provides free legal services to poor and vulnerable people and communities by putting them in touch with pro bono lawyers – lawyers who will not charge for their services. ProBono.Org runs two projects that specifically deal with issues like yours. These are:

  • The Wills Project, which provides education on wills and intestate succession

  • The Masters’ Offices Legal Clinics, where volunteer attorneys attend to clients struggling with Masters' Office issues

“ProBono.Org facilitates weekly legal clinics at the Masters’ Offices in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg to assist individuals or families with legal issues related to estates valued at less than R250 000. The clinics are staffed by volunteer attorneys who attend to clients on a rotational basis. The types of matters they deal with include advising on the procedure to follow when winding up deceased estates, the validity of wills, invalid letters of authority, invalid transfers of immovable property, incorrect or fraudulent estate transfers, evictions, maintenance, and removal of executors. If a matter requires further work, the attorney at the clinic takes the matter back to his or her firm, or refers the matter back to ProBono.Org to identify a law firm to take it on.”

The email for Clinics: dbninfo@probono.org.za

  • The Johannesburg Master’s Office Legal Clinic runs every Wednesday from 09h00 – 12h00 at 66 Marshall Street, Johannesburg.

  • The Durban Master’s Office Legal Clinic runs every Thursday from 10h00 – 12h30 at 2nd Floor, 2 Devonshire Place, Durban.

  • The Pretoria Master’s Office Legal Clinic runs on Tuesdays from 09h00 -13h00 at Thabo Sehume Street (cnr. Schoeman St), Pretoria.

It would be worth contacting ProBono. They may be able to refer you to a pro bono lawyer in Rustenburg. But if they can’t, the journey from Rustenburg to Johannesburg takes about two hours and fifteen minutes, which is about half the time of the journey from Rustenburg to Pietersburg (Polokwane), which is about four and a half hours. 

These are their contact details:

Email: info@probono.org.za

Tel: 011 339 6080.

Address in Johannesburg: 1st Floor West Wing, Women's Jail Constitution Hill 1 Kotze Street, Braamfontein.

Wishing you the best,
Athalie

Answered on Dec. 7, 2023, 11:41 a.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.