Crisis at Master’s Office delays access to legacies, but technology increases accessibility.

This article first appeared on Business Day

Luyolo Mkentane’s article (Business Day, 22 February 2021) illustrates how the backlog and inefficiencies at the Master’s Offices – in winding up deceased estates, liquidations, and other critical services – severely hampers South Africa’s legal practitioners and delays the passing on of legacies.

The pandemic and concomitant deaths due to Covid-19 have created an accumulation of deceased estates that could have significant negative repercussion for the R30bn law fraternity sector, notwithstanding the allegations of corruption and disorder at the Master’s Offices.

Some attorneys have stated that they are closing their practices as their ability to earn fees as executors depends on the efficiency of the Master’s Office. Attorney Michael Dansky (Business Day, 22 February 2021), whose law firm is involved in the administration of deceased estates, described the situation at the Master’s Offices as “absolute chaos that’s destroying our practices”.

Even as a tech start-up offering white-labelled Wills and Estate planning services, we are unfortunately seeing how the backlog at the Master’s Office is impacting our clients. Cliqtech has experienced delays when settling clients’ deceased Estates, especially outside of Gauteng. It can sometimes take months to get a letter of Executorship and much more time to obtain the query sheets.

Although we leverage technology to increase internal efficiencies in winding up estates, we still require the Master’s Offices to function optimally and what happens there remains beyond our control.

Technology provides a golden opportunity to forward the ideals of financial inclusion and accessibility, but it isn’t a silver bullet. The Master’s Office backlog limits our ability to wind up estates timeously, even as technology is scaling our ability to deliver to clients and cut out certain regulatory obstacles.

Embracing technology can reduce corruption and inefficiencies

Fintechs that play in the fiduciary space are disrupting existing bottlenecks, ensuring greater efficiency and scalability of products and services, and are bringing change within the financial services industry. These efficiencies are working to the advantage of consumers, reducing pricing, increasing choice and improving service.

The Master’s Office receives all its correspondence via courier or direct delivery and by law, the deceased’s Will has to be a hard copy original in order to be legally valid, but there is no reason why the Office cannot modernise and digitise. The Master’s Offices needs to embrace technology to facilitate web-based and email solutions to a much larger extent.

Being able to handle one’s financial affairs online ensures efficiency when all the required information regarding your Estate is available up front, and you don’t need to go and visit a physical office or have a physical meeting to manage your affairs. This is the opportunity of current technology – to breathe air and shed light into stuffy and closed processes that have caused unnecessary delays and stress for South Africans.

It’s time that the Master’s Office embrace this wave of change, instead of insisting on holding onto a past that is putting obstacles in the path of accessing and awarding legacies. This is especially necessary if we’re going to ensure financial inclusion and ensure citizens are empowered when it comes to their financial affairs.

Delays at Master’s Office could discourage citizens from taking care of their financial affairs

Although people are signing up for Wills online– and at a much higher rate than before – the issues at the Master’s Office are out of step with exciting developments in the fiduciary technology sector.

The issues at the Master’s Office shouldn’t cause responsible adults to delay in drawing up Wills, but the irony is that is exactly what could happen. In a Digital Age, citizens need to be empowered to manage their financial affairs online, but instead of making the most of current developments, the Master’s Office is missing out on an opportunity that would alleviate their burden of years of backlog.  

It also appears that some attorneys cannot obtain letters of Executorship because they haven’t been able to access the respective Master’s Office in their towns. This is sad news, because too often I see families losing out on their legacies due to breadwinners not having a valid Will.

To address this particular issue, we are proactively accessing the corresponding attorneys in different areas that understand the Master’s Office in their area of practice. This has sped up the time it takes to obtain letters of Executorship; however, it always does depend on a specific Master’s Office.

The issues at the Master’s Office shouldn’t cause responsible adults to delay in drawing up a Will because having a Will does protect one from encountering further issues at the Master’s Office, while having a qualified Executor as part of one’s Will will assist one in obtaining a letter of Executorship sooner. If the Master does not accept the nominated executor and a new executor needs to be appointed, this slows down the process.

Let’s keep putting the spotlight on this important issue, because it’s not just the wealthy whose legacies are being delayed, but the less fortunate are being denied the leg up that they need to lift themselves out of poverty as one generation passes onto the next.