Death is a topic we’d rather not dwell on any more than we absolutely have to.
But it comes to us all, and just as we need to prepare for our own deaths by providing for our loved ones’ continued well-being with a valid will, we should be ready to deal with the various legal and practical issues that we will face when someone close to us dies.
There is, unfortunately, a lot of red tape involved, and in the shock and distress of dealing with your loss it may help a little to have on hand checklists of the main legal formalities and of the practical issues that you will need to prioritise.
The inevitability of death doesn’t detract from the shock and distress that it brings to the grieving survivors, and much as we don’t like to plan for these things it will help at least a little to know what to do in practice after a death.
There is unfortunately a lot of red tape involved, but your family doctor, undertaker and spiritual advisor (if you have one) will help you with or attend to many of the formalities and practicalities –
- Firstly, you will need a Notice of Death which sets out the identity of the deceased as well as the date, time and cause of death. If the deceased died at home, call in your family doctor for help. The deceased will be transported to a mortuary or funeral home and an autopsy may be necessary if your doctor is unable to certify the cause of death as “natural causes” (generally speaking the doctor will need to have seen the deceased no more than 6 months prior to death to be satisfied in this regard). In cases of death from “unnatural causes” (accidents or suspicion of foul play for example) you need to call in the police who will organise an autopsy at a State Mortuary.
- A Death Report will then be issued, together with a Burial Order. These are issued by persons authorised to do so by Home Affairs (the list includes traditional leaders, police officers and authorised undertakers). Note that cremation requires confirmation from a second doctor.
- In due course the Department of Home Affairs will issue a Death Certificate after receipt of the Notice of Death and the Death Report. That can take a few weeks but you can get an abridged death certificate free of charge immediately. The executor of the deceased’s estate will need the Death Certificate to begin the process of winding up the estate and you or the executor will need certified copies for claims on life policies etc.
- The death must also be reported within 14 days to the Master of the High Court (see below).
- Make a list of family members and close friends who you need to contact about the death, and don’t be afraid to ask for help and support, this is a time when everyone will want to be there for you.
- If the deceased lived alone prioritise things like pets and livestock, home security and safety, security of firearms, electricity top-ups, perishables in fridges and so on.
- If the deceased was an organ donor, let the applicable organisation know as soon as possible – time is naturally of the essence.
- Find and secure the deceased’s ID document, passport/s, important papers like title deeds etc as soon as possible.
- Find the deceased’s will (hopefully he/she will have left one) and contact the nominated executor who will give you a list of things you need to do and paperwork you need to get together. If you are nominated as executor, contact your attorney to help you with the winding-up process.
- If there was no will, again contact your attorney for help in reporting the death to the Master of the High Court. You will need to lodge an inventory of assets with the Master, who will normally appoint a formal executor only where the value of the estate exceeds R250,000.
- Find out if the deceased had funeral insurance and if so what is required to claim on it. There is no legal requirement for a funeral or memorial service to be held but generally be guided by the deceased’s wishes if you know or can find out what they were. Also naturally follow any religious beliefs and requirements. A funeral home will help with all the funeral arrangements.
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