If you are taking advantage of our current low interest rates and reduced selling prices to buy a property, make sure that you establish the seller’s marital status with something more than what the seller tells you.
Your risk comes in if the seller is married in community of property. That’s because, whilst our law generally allows spouses in such a marriage to “perform any juristic act with regard to the joint estate without the consent of the other spouse”, there are exceptions.
And one exception relates to immovable property. A spouse needs the written consent of the other to sell, mortgage or burden the property (by granting a servitude over it for example). Without that written consent the transaction is void, unlawful and unenforceable.
Which is where the danger comes in. Consider this scenario – you pay for and take transfer of a property from a seller who you think is unmarried, but a spouse suddenly appears and says “I never consented to that sale so it’s void. The transfer to you is cancelled so out you go and good luck getting your money back”. What now?
Competing rights and a balancing act
There is of course a fine balancing act for courts involved here – on the one hand, the rights of the non-consenting spouse and on the other hand your rights as a good-faith buyer from a seller who you believed to be unmarried.
A recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment addressed exactly that situation.
“But I thought I was buying from an unmarried seller”
What the buyer must prove
The buyer had to prove that he did not know, and could not reasonably have known, that consent was needed but lacking.
What the Court here needed to decide was whether the buyer should at the time of the sale have known of the marriage and the lack of written consent. “A duty is cast on a party seeking to rely on the deemed consent provision” held the Court “… to make the enquiries that a reasonable person would make in the circumstances as to whether the other contracting party is married, if so, in terms of which marriage regime, whether the consent of the non-contracting spouse is required and, if so, whether it has been given.”
Finding that the buyer had indeed proved (1) that he did not know that the deceased was married and (2) that he could not reasonably have known this, the SCA allowed the appeal and the transfer to the buyer stands on the basis of deemed consent by the spouse.
The facts of each case will be different, and it is important to bear in mind that in this particular matter the husband’s claim to be unmarried was supported not only by the absence of any sign of a wife but also by two official documents – the deed of transfer and the power of attorney to pass transfer.
The bottom line is that as buyer you must make “reasonable enquiries” as to the seller’s marital status and as to whether the other spouse’s written consent to the sale is needed.
NOTE FOR ATTORNEYS: The judgment in Vukeya v Ntshane and Others (518/2019)  ZASCA 167 is on SAFLII and the relevant sections of the Matrimonial Property Act, Act 88 of 1984, are quoted therein.
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)