The one constant truth about life is that everybody dies at some point.
BY MIRIAM TOSE MAJOME
When we die, we will no longer be able to manage our affairs the way we do now and as we want.
We acquire material possessions as we go through life, with some acquiring more than others and some less.
However, everybody owns something, even if it is only the clothes on their backs.
Acquisitions and belongings form part of a person’s estate.
An estate means the assets and liabilities belonging to living or dead people.
An estate is the net worth of a person after their liabilities and debts have b
een taken care of.
An estate includes a person’s legal rights, interests and entitlements in tangible and intangible property.
Death’s twisted humour is that the inanimate objects and material possessions we spend so much time in acquiring and safeguarding during our entire lives will always outlive us.
Our prized possessions end up in other people’s hands and we have absolutely no control over how they handle them, except if we leave wills but even so there is only so much we can control in earnest from our graves.
No matter how capable or efficient a person maybe while alive, all their possessions and private and public affairs will invariably be managed by other people, who may be less concerned or less capable than themselves.
Not even the most efficient manager can manage their own affairs from the grave.
We look at the law that governs the management of the estates of dead people.
The Administration of Estates Act (Chapter 6:01) governs deceased estates.
Even though the focus of this discussion is the estates of dead people, the Act also governs the estates of minors, mentally disordered or defective persons and persons absent from Zimbabwe.
The Act also provides for the control of moneys belonging to persons whose whereabouts are unknown that is missing persons.
The Act sets the rules and guidelines for running the affairs of people, who for the mentioned circumstances, are unable to handle their own affairs or are limited for some reason.
The Act aims at protecting the estates of people, who are unable or unavailable to protect their own estates and run their own affairs.
In Zimbabwe, there are at least two distinct ways of administering deceased estates.
There is the formal legal route in which deceased estates are formally registered with the office of the Master of the High Court.
The other way is the informal traditional administration carried out within families through certain cultural traditions.
Traditional informal administration
It is admitted that there is no single or homogenous African culture.
Generally, however, the majority of Shona people administer the estates of deceased family members through a standardised negotiated settlement within the family.
As soon as possible, after the burial, a person’s clothes and other acquisitions are brought before the family members still gathered for the funeral and are distributed amongst them and absent relatives by proxy.
A public appeal is made to return or identify the assets and liabilities of the deceased.
Relatives and associates of the deceased are expected to provide the required information, so that the deceased person’s obligations are settled posthumously with debtors and creditors.
Bringing everything out into the open serves to ensure transparency, as it very important in the culture for people to see how the dead person’s possessions were distributed.
If the deceased had children, some relatives will be appointed to be surrogate parents.
The widow or widower may even be given a substitute spouse although this is less common now.
A nominal spouse may still be appointed, who will be expected to play the role of an overseer and protector of the deceased person’s immediate family.
Unfortunately, this manner of administration is not the most transparent or efficient way, especially where large estates and complicated intangible assets and affairs are involved.
Frictions and long-running family feuds are inevitable in any inheritance issues, but the traditional manner of administration worked better in the past than now because people’s estates were leaner and much less complicated to administer.
Traditionally, the majority of ordinary black people owned very modest property like a few clothes, a few farming implements and not much livestock.
Formal legal administration
We now turn to discuss the formal and legally prescribed manner of registering and administering deceased estates.
The office of the Master of the High Court of Zimbabwe is seized with this function.
The Master’s office is a large and expansive unit and encompasses the Deputy Master, Assistant Master and further assistants appointed in terms of the Act such as magistrates located in the various districts.
So it is very possible to register deceased estates anywhere in Zimbabwe where magistrates’ courts are found.
Requirement to give death notice
I will outline a step by step guide on how to register the estate of a deceased person.
This is a very broad and important topic as it affects the majority of the people.
As stated earlier, everybody owns property in one way or the other and it needs to be protected and managed even after the person dies.
It is a legal requirement to give a formal death notice to the Master, Assistant Master or magistrate within 14 days if the person dies and leaves property or leaves a will.
It is the duty of the nearest relative, next of kin or anyone concerned with the deceased, who is near the place of death to notify the Master’s office of the death.
It is a criminal offence to fail to give such notice if the person owned property.
As it is, many people throughout the country have not registered the estates of their deceased relatives such as parents, siblings etc and are with just using the assets or simply don’t know what to do with them.
Using or disposing of a deceased person’s property without the Master’s consent is a serious criminal offence.
Some people purposefully fail to register estates to take advantage of the assets and the owner’s permanent absence.
Some, however, are acting in sheer ignorance, but this needs to be corrected and comply with the law.
We will continue walking through the process of formally registering and administering deceased estates and discuss the advantages, thereof, apart from the need to comply with the law.