Estates and trusts in limbo due to huge backlog at Master’s Offices

Estates and trusts in limbo due to huge backlog at Master’s Offices

Massive delays in winding-up deceased estates, as well as the functioning of trusts, are set to continue because of the almost total breakdown in services at the 15 Master’s Offices around the country.

In addition to Covid-19-related closures of Master’s Offices over the past 18 months, the Master of the High Court was hit by a massive cyber attack on 5 September. As a result, there is an unprecedented backlog at Master’s Offices countrywide, according to the Fiduciary Institute of Southern Africa (FISA).

It said there has been a recent positive development: the Master’s Integrated Case Management System (ICMS) has been restored, albeit on a sporadic basis, and has been accessed by some fiduciary practitioners.

The ICMS connects more than 400 magistrates’ offices and the Master’s Offices.

FISA said it seems that Master’s Office officials are able to receive external messages, but it is uncertain whether all of these messages are received. Furthermore, the offices cannot respond to queries, but might be able to respond telephonically, if the query does not rely on the system.

FISA chief executive Louis van Vuren said processes that normally take some time to be completed will be delayed even further.

For example, the Master’s Office provides letters of executorship to executors of deceased estates, letters of authority to authorised trustees, and approves liquidation and distribution accounts.

Banks use the Master’s Office portal to verify letters of executorship before they are willing to take instructions from executors regarding the bank account/s of the deceased. This is a crucial step to enable the executor to make interim maintenance payments to a surviving spouse and/or children of the deceased.

“All these functions have essentially been on hold since 5 September,” Van Vuren said.

“Trusts have also been badly affected. New or replacement trustees are not authorised, which, if the trust deed requires a certain minimum number of trustees, means that the investment portfolios of trusts cannot be rebalanced and can be impacted negatively by market movements.

“In addition, testamentary trusts cannot be registered, leaving minor children without maintenance, while new charitable trusts can also not be registered. The impact on society and the economy is therefore significant,” he said.

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