Unsigned wills

Is a copy of a will valid?

Because of Covid, my late father never signed his latest will. Will I have to wind up his estate based on his earlier signed will or can I rely on the later unsigned one?

A will is a document in which a person sets out how his or her belongings are distributed in accordance with their wishes after their death.

For a will to be valid it must comply with the formalities set out in the Wills Act 7 of 1953 (the Act).

The requirements for a valid Will are as follows:

  • The “testator” or “testatrix” (the person who makes a will) must be over the age of 16 (sixteen) years and mentally competent.
  • The Will must be in writing. This means that a will can by typed or handwritten. If the Will is handwritten by someone else for the testator, that person cannot be a beneficiary in the will
  • Each page of the Will, including the last page, must be signed by the testator. The Will must also be signed by two competent witnesses. A person will qualify to be a competent witness if s/he is 14 (fourteen) years of age or older.
  • The signature of the testator/testatrix must be made in the presence of two or more competent witnesses.
  • The witnesses must attest and sign the Will in the presence of the testator/testatrix and of each other.

What happens if the will is lost, destroyed, or never signed?

Section 2(3) of the Act:

‘If a Court is satisfied that a document or the amendment of a document drafted or executed by a person who has died since the drafting or execution thereof, was intended to be his will or an amendment of his will, the court shall order the Master to accept that document, or that document as amended, for the purposes of the Administration of Estates Act, 1965 (Act 66 of 1965), as a will, although it does not comply with all the formalities for the execution or amendment of wills referred to in subsection (1)’.

In terms of our law of succession, the Master of the High Court will only accept as valid a will that complies with all the formalities of the Wills Act. If an original will is lost or destroyed and only a copy of the original will available, a person that wishes to rely upon such will must apply to court for an order declaring that the copy of the original is valid for purposes of administering a deceased estate. The same principle will apply to an unsigned will.

An applicant will have to prove:

  1. That the will was lawfully executed.
  2. The circumstances in which the original will was lost or destroyed (or never signed) or that a diligent and sufficient search for the original will was made with no success.
  3. That the deceased had no intention of revoking the will.
  4. That the disputed testamentary document is a true copy of the missing original will and that it contains true wishes of the last will so executed.

Only if the court is satisfied that the copy of the will is valid and represents the intentions of the testator, may the court order the Master to accept the copy of the will as valid and to be used for purposes of administering the estate.

The court will require the applicant to set out all the facts in an affidavit, but it may also require oral testimony. The degree of proof required will depend on the circumstances of each particular case. The factors that the court would consider are: “Was the missing original will innocently lost? If so, has a diligent and sufficient search been made to trace it? This is the one scenario – innocent loss. Was the missing original will deliberately destroyed? If so, was it destroyed on purpose by the testator as an act of revocation or mischievously spirited away by a disgruntled potential beneficiary as an act of dishonesty or spitefully shredded by a third party with an ulterior motive? This is the other scenario – purposeful destruction”.

In every case the final outcome depends on the overall evidence presented to the court by the claimant who must, on a balance of probabilities, prove the case in order to be awarded judgment.

It is a good idea to sign three original copies of your will, one for you, one for a close family member and one for the person that helped you draft the will.

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