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A person loses their legal capacity to inherit if they become unworthy to do so based on the general principle that a person should not be able to derive benefit from their wrongful act. These principles were dealt with in a recent application in the Western Cape High Court. 

The deceased (S) was a wine farmer who was killed on his farm in June 2019. In 2018, S executed a valid Will, the terms of which mostly excluded his widow, also the applicant (Z) in the case, from his estate. Z approached the honourable court to have another document, executed in January 2019 purportedly found by her in the deceased’s Bible, after his death, declared his Last Will and Testament in terms of the Wills Act, 1953. This ‘Will’ greatly benefitted Z by nominating her executrix and major beneficiary and giving her powers to dismiss the trustees of the Trust which owned and controlled the deceased’s farm and farming operations.  

S’s two daughters opposed the application on two grounds– the forgery of S’s signature in the 2019 ‘Will’ and Z’s alleged involvement in S’s murder. 

The daughters provided evidence from two handwriting experts declaring the document a forgery. Z’s own expert contested that a thumb injury resulted in the different signature on the 2019 ‘Will’. This was further challenged by comparing the contested signature to 16 other documents signed by S, all different to the contested signature. The daughters further adduced evidence of a murder plot, instigated by Z and carried out by trusted employees who had access to the farm, the details of which are still being dealt with in a pending criminal trial.

The judge concluded that, on a balance of probabilities, the 2019 ‘Will’ was indeed a forgery and, that despite pending criminal charges, Z was involved in the murder of S. The most obvious action leading to unworthiness is where an individual unlawfully causes the death of a testator (known in Roman-Dutch law as “de bloedige hand neemt geen erf”).

The court confirmed that this is not the only ground of unworthiness and acts of coercion, forgery, and undue influence in the execution of testamentary documents would further disqualify the perpetrator from benefitting. The application was dismissed, the 2019 ‘Will’ declared null and void and Z was declared as unworthy to inherit from her late husband’s estate.

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