While nobody particularly likes to think about death, it is an unfortunately reality for all of us and preparing for this eventuality is not just a practical step but also a responsible one. Having a valid will in place is not just a formality; it’s a critical measure to simplify the admin that inevitably accompanies a death in the family and ensures that your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets (whether to family, friends or charitable causes) are respected and carried out.

If you fail to make your last wishes clear in your will, it will lead to your assets being distributed according to a standard legislative formula, which is likely to not be what you wanted.

Why a thoughtfully detailed will matters

A well-structured will conveys your intentions for what should happen to your assets after your death, with clarity. This is particularly important for those with children under 18,  as it allows for the appointment of guardians and financial provisions for their well-being after your passing.

Katherine Timoney, senior associate at specialist boutique law firm Gillan & Veldhuizen Inc, points out that, “While it’s not a requirement to have a professional draft your will, it must adhere to the formal requirements in the Wills Act 7 of 1953.”

These requirements are designed to lessen the possibility of fraud.

In South African law, there are only a few specific formalities for a valid will:

  1. The testator or testatrix (you) must sign at the end of the document and initial all its pages.
  2. Two competent witnesses (above 14 years old and not set to inherit) must also sign at the end and initial all pages. Please note that a beneficiary who serves as a witness cannot then inherit anything in terms of that will.
  3. All signatures must be executed in the presence of one another, ensuring a collective witnessing.

“If your estate is intricate – for example if you own foreign assets, a business, or real estate, or if you want to set up trusts for your children or other beneficiaries – it is wise to ask a professional for assistance. Their expertise will guide you through the complexities and ensure that your will is a true reflection of what you want to happen to your assets after your die and that it is tailored to your specific situation,” advises Timoney.

Regularly updating your will is essential to account for significant developments in your life. Whether you’ve just gotten married, divorced, welcomed children, acquired property or obtained substantial assets, your will should be updated to reflect these changes. Adjustments should also address changes within your immediate family, such when your children become adults or if someone nominated as a beneficiary, guardian to a minor child or as your executor passes away or you no longer enjoy the close relationship that you once did.

Cross-border considerations

Wills executed and signed in other countries are recognised in South Africa if they adhere to the formalities in the Wills Act. As you would expect, wills failing to meet these standards – whether crafted locally or abroad – are invalid. If your will addresses only some assets, you’re partially testate and partially intestate. In such cases, assets covered by the will follow its directives, while remaining assets are distributed among next of kin in terms of the appropriate legislation.

The consequences of dying without a will


The Intestate Succession Act 81 of 1987 regulates the distribution of your assets when you don’t have a will or if your will doesn’t deal with all of your assets.  The distribution hierarchy is structured based on who in your immediate family has survived you. For example, if you are not married, your parents would be your intestate heirs. The legislation has a formula which moves to progressively more distant family depending on which family members were still alive at the time of your death. While these provisions may align with your preferences, unintended outcomes can arise.

“For instance, if you leave a spouse and children, the Act stipulates the spouse inherits a child’s share of the estate or a minimum of R250,000,” explains Timoney “and this might necessitate the sale of a family house since the estate has to be divided between the spouse and children.”

“Consulting with a professional ensures that your will meets legal requirements and accurately represents how you want to distribute your assets and look after your family,” adds Timoney.  A meticulously crafted will is not just a legal document; it’s a lasting testament to your values and intentions.