PROPERLY EXECUTING A WILL IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT

I gave instructions to my attorney to prepare a last will and testament for me as my will no longer reflected my wishes. At my request, my attorney emailed the will to me with clear instructions as to how I should go about signing it. I asked my neighbours to act and sign as witnesses. My neighbours signed the will on all the pages and left before I signed. I then signed the will on all the pages. I am now worried about the validity of my will as the email from my attorney states that I have to sign the will in the presence of two witnesses. Is my will valid?

The formalities for the valid execution of a will are set out in the Wills Act. Section 2 of the Wills Act, Act 7 of 1953, reads: “No will executed… shall be valid unless the will is signed at the end thereof by the testator… and such signature is made by the testator… in the presence of two or more competent witnesses present at the same time and such witnesses attest and sign the will in the presence of the testator and of each other…”. Therefore, in order for a will to be valid, it has to be signed in the presence of two independent witnesses, both witnesses being present when the will is signed by the testator. The two witnesses signed your will in the presence of each other, but not in your presence.

A similar set of facts presented itself in a court case recently heard by the Gauteng Local Division of the High Court. In this matter, the two daughters of the deceased, who lost out on their inheritance in terms of the will of their father, claimed that it was never their father’s intention for his much younger lover to inherit his total estate. The testator was 85 years old at the time of his death and he had been living with a woman 38 years his junior for 8 years.

The deceased executed two wills during his lifetime. One on 6 November 2011 (“the 2011 will”) and another on 7 January 2014 (“the 2014 will”). The 2014 will was signed shortly before his death leaving the bulk of his estate to his much younger lover. The daughters of the deceased claimed the 2014 will was invalid as there were “suspicious” circumstances. They claimed their father either did not sign the 2014 will himself or, if he did, that he lacked the mental capacity to execute a valid will by reason of dementia. The daughters of the deceased were not successful in proving that the deceased’s signature was a forgery despite the fact that three handwriting experts testified.

Another witness called to testify was a witness to the 2014 will. Her testimony focused on the circumstances surrounding the signing of the 2014 will. She signed the will as a witness. She testified that she and her husband met the deceased in the street. As they were acquainted they naturally engaged in social conversation. She and her husband were informed that the deceased was on his way to the police station to sign a will. She and her husband were asked if they would accompany the deceased in order to sign the will as witnesses. They were assured that the process would not take long so they agreed to assist.

She and her husband signed the will and immediately left. They were the first to sign the will. At the time they signed the will the deceased had not signed the will. They left before witnessing the deceased signing the will.  Hence, the 2014 will was not signed by the deceased in their presence even though it reflects their respective signatures as witnesses.

The evidence assessed collectively established that the deceased signed the 2011 will and also that he signed the 2014 will. However, the 2014 will was signed by the deceased after the two witnesses to the will had already left and therefore was signed in their absence.

The court referred to Section 2 of the Wills Act in terms whereof no will is valid unless the signature made by the testator is made “in the presence of two or more competent witnesses present at the same time”. The court confirmed that this requirement is mandatory and, if not met, the will is not valid for want of compliance with a statutorily required formality.

The court therefore found the 2014 will to be invalid and, as there was no evidence that there was any irregularity in the execution of the 2011 will, the 2011 will was declared the will of the deceased.

This judgement of the High Court once again emphasizes the importance of complying with the Wills Act. Your will is invalid, and it is advisable for you to print the will again and to sign it in the presence of two competent witnesses or, even better, for you to make an appointment with your attorney in order to sign the will at his office.

Reference List:

  • Twine and Another v Naidoo and Another [2017] ZAGPJHC 288; [2018] 1 All SA 297 (GJ)
  • Wills Act, Act 7 of 1953

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)