Your Will: What You Can and Can’t Do

A properly drawn and executed will (your “Last Will and Testament”) is the only way for you to ensure that your loved ones are properly looked after once you are gone.

Perhaps most importantly, only by making your own will can you specify who is to inherit what from you. But is your “Freedom of Testation” limited in any way? Can you disinherit your spouse, or your children? Who chooses who will benefit from your pension and retirement funds?

These are critical questions, and we discuss the answers to them with reference both to several important court decisions on the matter, and to general legal principles which you should know about.

“Where there’s a will, I want to be in it” (Anon)

 Your will (“Last Will and Testament”) is quite possibly the most important document you will ever sign. Without a properly-executed will you put your loved ones at risk of financial and emotional hardship, you forfeit your right to nominate who administers your deceased estate, and most importantly you forfeit your right to choose who inherits what from you.

But just how wide is your right to choose? Can you leave anything to anyone? Is your freedom to decide limited in any way? Must your executor blindly carry out your last wishes?

Your fundamental right to “freedom of testation”…

For centuries our common (i.e. unwritten) law has recognised “freedom of testation” as a basic principle, subject only to being balanced against a restricted list of specific limitations.

Moreover our courts have confirmed that this freedom is supported by our Constitution. To quote the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA): “The right to dignity allows the living, and the dying, the peace of mind of knowing that their last wishes would be respected after they have passed away.”

…and the limits

Even as far back as Roman times there were limits to freedom of testation, and these have grown over time to incorporate the following general principles against which your will’s validity can be tested –

  • You cannot have anything in your will that is illegal, immoral, or “against public policy”, or impossible to fulfil, or so vague as to be unenforceable.
  • Legal obligations for maintenance of dependants and of your “surviving spouse” (where he/she qualifies) will generally take preference over bequests.
  • How you were married could well be relevant. Thus if you were married out of community of property with the accrual system, your surviving spouse may have a claim against your estate for half of the combined increase in the value of your separate estates during the marriage (specific rules apply).
  • Courts also have a variety of other statutory powers such as the power to alter trust provisions and to remove or modify restrictions on immovable property.
  • Pension and retirement fund benefits may not be paid out to your nominee – the fund’s administrators must first identify any dependants with possible claims on them.
  • Constitutionality: Your bequests also stand to be tested against our Constitution. Thus in 2010 the SCA removed a discriminatory clause in an educational fund bequest open only to “European girls born of British South African or Dutch South African parents”, commenting that “In the public sphere there can be no question that racially discriminatory testamentary dispositions will not pass constitutional muster” (emphasis added). Similarly in 2006 the High Court struck down provisions in a will limiting a bursary fund to white non-Jewish males.

On the other hand, the SCA in a 2018 judgment upheld a private trust’s provisions benefitting only the deceased’s biological descendants to the exclusion of two adopted grandchildren. “There is much to be said for public trusts being judged more strictly than private trusts”, said the Court, noting that the public nature of the bequests in the earlier judgments was “a determining factor in the weighing up process in those specific cases.” Note that the particular facts of that case also played a part in the Court’s decision, so adopted children and grandchildren might well succeed in different circumstances.

Clearly, there will always be a balancing act in play here because, as we saw above, freedom of testation is itself regarded as a constitutional right.

Critical: A well-drawn and valid will

The last thing your grieving loved ones will need is a long and bitter court battle over whether your will is valid – or over any areas of uncertainty or dispute.

Bear in mind that of necessity the list above is only a brief summary of the legal principles involved – there are many “ifs and buts”, grey areas (such as the balancing act referred to above in regard to the question of constitutionality), and considerations beyond the scope of this article.

That’s why there can be no substitute here for legal advice specific to your circumstances. Have your attorney draw your will for you (or check it if you already have a will). It must be properly drawn, it must correctly and clearly reflect your wishes, it must be validly executed – and it must pass muster when tested as above!