A recent High Court decision has been widely viewed as an important victory for the rights of unmarried opposite-sex life partners. Until now, if one such partner died intestate (without making a will), the other could not inherit on the same basis as could a married spouse. Nor could the surviving life partner claim maintenance from the deceased estate (whilst a surviving spouse can claim).
The High Court’s pronouncement that the relevant legislation was unconstitutional and invalid in this regard must still be confirmed by the Constitutional Court, but it certainly is a clear indication that our courts want to see our laws amended to protect the rights of such couples.
The life partner who will now inherit
- An unmarried 57-year-old man died leaving substantial assets. Both the executor of his deceased estate and the Master of the High Court rejected, primarily on the basis of existing law, his surviving (female) partner’s claim to inherit from the estate.
- She approached the High Court with her claim, and the Court found on the facts that the couple had been “partners in a permanent opposite-sex life partnership, with the same or similar characteristics as a marriage, in which they had undertaken reciprocal duties of support”.
- The provisions of the Intestate Succession Act and the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act were, held the Court, unconstitutional to the extent that they excluded opposite-sex permanent life partners from their provisions.
- The practical effect is that the surviving partner will inherit as though she was a spouse.
But, if you are in an opposite-sex life partnership –
- You should still make a will
There’s no guarantee that the Constitutional Court will confirm the declaration of invalidity, but more importantly there are very sound reasons for everyone – married or not – to leave behind a valid and properly-drafted will.
It is quite possibly the most important document you will ever sign. Without a will, you lose your right to choose who inherits what (your spouse for example will get only a “child’s share” on intestacy), you have no say in who will be appointed as the executor of your deceased estate, and you risk exposing your surviving loved ones to the trauma and expense of family dispute and litigation.
In the context of life partners, perhaps you want your surviving partner to inherit everything, or perhaps you don’t. The only way to ensure your desired outcome is to specifically provide for it in your will.
- You should still have a cohabitation agreement
An enduring myth in our society is that our law recognises the concept of a “common law marriage”. There is no such thing in South African law and whilst there are some limited statutory protections for life partners, if and when you part ways you could well find yourselves embroiled in a prolonged and bitter dispute. Quite possibly one of you will be left destitute after many years of “living as man and wife”.
The quick and easy solution is to enter into a cohabitation agreement, it’s the best way to safeguard both of your rights (personal as well as financial).
NOTE FOR ATTORNEYS: The judgment in Bwanya v Master of the High Court, Cape Town and Others (20357/18)  ZAWCHC 111 (28 September 2020) is on SAFLII.
This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)